As time ticks down to the Tuesday public vote on government vouchers for private school tuition, a curiosity arises: Might public charter schools seek to become private schools, should Referendum 1 pass on Tuesday?
The question has been floating around in business and education circles, from charter schools to the chairman of the State Board of Education.
Indeed, converting a charter into a private school would create a built-in clientele and freedom from state regulations for teaching to testing and much in between.
But several charter school experts say a conversion would be a bad business move. And some wonder if it's even possible.
"There's always grumblings ... there are some schools that really don't want any oversight," said Gary Belliston, finance specialist in the State Office of Education's charter schools office. Still, he knows of none planning to convert to a private school.
"From a business standpoint, why would you want to close a charter school (when you have) guaranteed revenues?"
Still, it is possible some charter school leaders would seek to create private schools in addition to running their charter schools should voters OK giving parents a $500 to $3,000 voucher for private school tuition, based on income. One charter school director says she'd consider that possibility.
"Of course," said Carolyn Sharette, director of American Preparatory Academy charter school in Draper.
Charter schools are public schools that offer a different approach to curriculum and heavy parental involvement. As such, they charge no tuition and essentially are guaranteed around $5,300 per student from the state, according to numbers supplied by the State Office of Education. The schools, several of which have waiting lists, also may receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in state or federal start-up money and other federal grants.
"We have a guaranteed funding source, which is the state ... (and) our board is formed to run a public school," Sharette said. "It's quite a bit different to run a private school."
It's also questionable whether a public operation like a charter school could switch to a private entity. State law says that if charter schools close, their assets, like books, desks and computers, go back to the chartering entity, be it a school district or the State Board of Education.
That's what recently happened to Dream charter school's assets.
Charter schools also would likely have to give back their fund balances a sign of fiscal soundness, according to the Legislative Auditor General's Office one of which was as high as $1.8 million in 2006, the auditor general found last winter. In addition, "To the extent possible, all leases, service agreements, and other contracts not necessary for the transition of the closing charter school should be terminated," the law states.
A nonprofit also probably legally couldn't just convert into a for-profit business, Belliston said. Charter schools that are purchasing their buildings probably would have to turn them over to the state, too, as they would have been purchased with state funds. Lessees might have other difficulties.
"To change from a charter school to a private school would really require a tenant to go back to a landlord and renegotiate a lease," said Jim Ferrin, a partner in U.S. Charter Development, which finances, develops, builds and owns facilities that are leased to charter schools. "We wouldn't do it ... a private school is a more risky venture."
Private school tuition would become a revenue stream. Yet it's unlikely parents getting a free education in a charter school would want to start paying, said Ferrin, former member of the Utah House who unsuccessfully carried a bill giving tax credits for private school tuition, a sister concept of the voucher.
He says talk of charter schools converting to private schools makes no business sense, calling it "an anti-voucher message people will throw out there that doesn't stick when faced with reality."
But the idea of a charter school leader venturing off to start a private school is different, Sharette says.
Advocates have long said vouchers will open the education marketplace and create more demand for private schools, which now enroll about 3 percent of Utah's schoolchildren.
"Would the schools follow (if vouchers pass)? Absolutely, and I think they would be at immediate capacity," Sharette said.
People experienced in operating schools, be they in private, charter or regular public schools, are the likely ones to become private school entrepreneurs.
"There are a lot of good people who know how to start and run schools in my opinion ... I think I'm pretty good at running schools," Sharette said.But, she adds, "I would not try to convert my school, either. My school is a public school. ... I would never leave. This is my baby."