Keith Johnson, Deseret News
Maddie Hayes, left, Darlene Castro, Cameron Lund and Lindsay Branton practice a song during a guitar class at the Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts Monday.

The state's proposed education budget may force as many as 18 charter schools to close their doors next fall.

Initial drafts of the 2010-11 budget, which still needs legislative approval, cut charter funding by $270 per pupil. Charter schools, which cannot levy taxes, already receive about $500 less than the state average for basic per-pupil spending. Even if schools manage to juggle the budget cuts, charters will be facing layoffs, officials said.

"This is not an acceptable solution for us," said Brian Allen, State Charter School Board chairman. "A third of our schools, which are performing extremely well, are going to get shut down. With this proposal, the state office is saying, 'We value your children less than district school students.' That's unfair to the kids and their parents, who are also taxpaying citizens in this state."

The finance proposal is based on the State Office of Education's plan to keep costs level despite an expected influx of some 14,700 new students. For the state as a whole, that means a 2.6 percent cut in basic per-student funding. Because charters account for 58 percent of the state's educational growth, however, they stand to absorb the majority of the financial burden, said Todd Hauber, associate superintendent of business services for the State Office of Education.

For an average-size charter school with 600 to 700 students, a $270 per-student funding cut could mean the loss of up to four classroom teachers or 10 full-time teacher's aides, said Lincoln Fillmore, who, as president of Charter Solutions, manages the finances for about a dozen charter schools in Utah.

"We're already operating on less money than traditional schools," Fillmore said. "So far, schools have been able to manage on that budget, but this proposal would make the situation so unfair, so untenable, so unequal that it's highly likely it will cripple the charter school movement."

Hauber said, though, that the budget proposal wasn't designed to "hit charters harder" than traditional schools.

"We have no money," he said. "We can't fund enrollment growth."

Budget talks are just getting started, and the details of the proposal are still subject to change.

"Every student in this state will have to suffer from budget cuts — not just charter school students," said Debra Roberts, chairwoman of the State Board of Education. "We will try to make it as painless as possible for everyone."

Roberts said the State Office of Education was unaware of the hardship the current plan forecasted for charter schools. It will be, however, a major point of discussion as the board refines the proposal, she said.

"I think it's unfortunate that charters were quick to leap to the conclusion that we were discriminating against them," she said. "Our purpose was to begin a conversation, not end one."

Most charter schools, though, would rather not have the conversation at all.

Brian Myrup, director of Reagan Academy in Springville, said he hopes he doesn't have to go so far as to let teachers go but anticipates part-time employees, teachers aides and playground supervisors may soon be luxuries of the past.

"I think we'll be able to make it work," he said, "but it will take the rest of the year to find a way to creatively manage the situation."

Wade Glather, principal of Early Light Academy in South Jordan, paused Monday when asked if his school could weather such a drastic budget cut.

"Are we going to be OK? What is 'OK'?" he asked. "No one wants to lose money for students."