Although charter schools had not yet been introduced in Utah, Governor Leavitt was very interested in supporting their implementation. He believed that school choice for parents and some competition for regular public schools was important. During the summer of 1997, a task force was organized by the legislature to study the possibility of creating charter schools in Utah. This task force consisted of legislators, Governor Leavitt’s deputy of education, public education officials, parents, and citizens. Although the task force met throughout the summer of 1997 and examined charter school models, concepts, and potential legislation, they did not reached a consensus regarding the details of a legislative proposal when the 1998 legislative session began.
Governor Leavitt was generally perceived by the public education community as a strong supporter of public education. However, the Governor was also well known for being forward thinking about education, and it was not unexpected when the Governor proposed the creation of charter schools even though most of the public education community did not support them. The Governor’s position created an interesting dichotomy; because the public education community generally recognized the Governor as a proponent of a strong public education system, they did not want to oppose the Governor full force regarding his charter schools proposal. When the legislative session began, a detailed proposal did not exist, but the Governor listed the creation of charter schools as one of his education priorities for the 1998 general session of the legislature.
As the legislative session progressed, various challenges to charter school legislation emerged and were debated: Should teachers be certified? How would charter schools be funded? How many charter schools should be authorized? What government entity should be granted authority to authorize and approve charter school applications? For what length of time should a charter be granted? To whom would the charter schools be accountable? What standards of governance would be mandated? These questions were very challenging to resolve due to the variance of charter school laws that had been enacted across the nation and the diverse political views that existed at the time. Capital funding was particularly challenging, as were considerations for non-wpu program funds. Also, the initial start up funding for these schools was a matter of concern. Moreover, legislators held very divergent views, although it was anticipated there would be sufficient support to enact some sort of charter school legislation. Public education officials were generally unsupportive or only slightly supportive as charter school legislation was being considered. Through all the debate, Governor Leavitt remained committed to gaining legislative approval for charter schools; he was open, however, to listening to the opinions from all of the stakeholders (Public Education Reforms Are Just ‘Emperor’s New Clothes’ http://archive.li.suu.edu/docs/ms122/NW/ms122NW20000402.pdf).
Many legislators believed that the money necessary to start and operate charter schools should come from the regular public education funding and that state funding should follow the student to the school in which the student was enrolled. Others were doubtful that the charter schools could even be financially viable. The fear was that charter schools would fail quickly, thus sending their students immediately back to the regular public education schools. Legislators were also very concerned about accountability. Since the schools would not be accountable to a local board of education, a major concern was the entity to whom would charter schools be accountable. Debate among legislators became very intense.
The underlying questions discussed above illustrate general philosophical differences between the public education supporters and many legislators, along with the Governor’s own views of creating charter schools. A growing sentiment at the legislature, especially among most republicans, was that charter schools represented a more distinct form of school choice than anything being proposed at the time. Some legislators wanted charter schools to be free of many rules and regulations imposed on regular public schools including the certification of charter school teachers, the creation of a chartering agency or board, and opportunities to operate these schools with a business model that would be more responsive to patrons. Charter Schools were thought to be very different than the successful Centennial Schools Program that had been implemented during the previous years of Governor Leavitt’s administration.
Charter School Bill
Although the philosophical differences and structural issues were difficult to overcome, an agreement was eventually reached by the legislature. After much negotiation, Governor Leavitt proposed that charter schools would become a pilot program only, and the proposal was accepted by the legislature. Representative Brian Allen agreed to sponsor the charter school bill in the House. The legislation provided for eight charter schools during a three year pilot period and gave the State Board of Education authority to award those charters to successful applicants. The legislature appropriated an initial sum of $500,000 of start-up funds to be allocated by the State Board, which meant $60,000 per charter school to assist with start-up expenses. It was agreed that WPU funding would follow the student to the charter school (Legislators Appropriate $227.9 Million For Utah Education http://archive.li.suu.edu/docs/ms122/NW/ms122NW20010301a.pdf). Charter schools were governed by a local governing board, parents were required to provide transportation for students, and no capital funds were appropriated to charter schools as part of this initial legislation.
While legislators and other stakeholders were negotiating and finalizing the charter school bill, there were some public school choice advocates that wanted Governor Leavitt to consider tax credits and school vouchers, which were emerging as a principal public school choice option. Although Governor Leavitt did not particularly agree with the use of tax credits or school vouchers, he was careful not to entirely close that door. He commonly said that he would consider these public school choice options once Utah education needs were sufficiently funded (Charter Schools Clear Legislature; Voucher Plan Passes Senate, But Could Have Trouble In The House; Education Bill Creates New Charter http://archive.li.suu.edu/docs/ms122/NW/ms122NW19980228.pdf).
Public school tax credits were eventually enacted by the legislature under the Huntsman administration. Through a citizen’s initiative and months of rancorous debate, however, this legislation was placed on the ballot and overturned by the electorate. Governor Leavitt had effectively kept school choice on the table, but felt that students’ needs could be met more effectively using charter schools with more specialized roles. This was a significant position because Governor Leavitt was able to reassure the public education community that he was fully behind them, but he clearly communicated that there were some things that the public schools should be doing better.
Though Governor Leavitt maintained his support for public education and public schools, he recognized that families needed to have freedom to choose other schools, if they felt that certain schools were not meeting their children’s needs (Charter Schools at 10-year Mark http://archive.li.suu.edu/docs/ms122/NW/ms122NW20020503.pdf). He was convinced that that charter schools represented the best choice and freedom, although he never foreclosed the possibility of going further with school choice. To make the incremental change, the Governor had to help all stakeholders understand that charter schools are, indeed, public schools that are publicly funded and publicly accountable. The Governor also recognized that pursuing tax credits and vouchers too early could undermine providing families the choice that charter schools could provide.
The implementation of charter schools would create major changes in Utah’s public school system. This reform gave parents the freedom to choose which schools their children would attend. Parents became more involved in proposals to start a charter school and also had the opportunity to serve on their governing boards. Charter schools now had the option to specialize in the sciences, arts, music, or to offer a more traditional curriculum. There was considerable variety in the first eight charter schools that were approved. One of the pilot charter schools was established for students that were disabled in sight. Another school, Tuacahn High School for the Performing Arts, was formed in St. George (Excitement and Misconceptions Surround Charter Schools; Leavitt’s Plan And The Subsequent State Funding For Eight In Utah Has Generated A Flurry Of Questions To Education Officials http://archive.li.suu.edu/docs/ms122/NW/ms122NW19980420.pdf, Big Apple Could Teach Utah About Education, Leavitt Says http://archive.li.suu.edu/docs/ms122/NW/ms122NW19930524.pdf, Office of the Governor: 2000 Legislative Accomplishments; Invest More, Expect More http://archive.li.suu.edu/docs/ms122/LG/ms122LG20000317.pdf). Even where schools chose to specialize, they were responsible to teach the Utah Core Curriculum and participate in state mandated student assessments.
Despite the obstacles, Governor Leavitt achieved his public education legislative priority in the 1998 legislative session by adding charter schools to the Utah public education system. The charter school bill did not pass until near the end of the legislative session, which is an indicator of the difficulty of this legislation. This was an important lesson in policy-making. Not everyone was completely satisfied with the legislation, but it opened the way for the introduction and growth of charter schools and public school choice in Utah. Every year since 1998, the legislature has considered changes to the original charter school legislation and the three year pilot of eight schools was short lived as additional schools were soon authorized.