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For-profit Charter School Conflicts in Utah

Legacy of voucher fight on state charter school board.


Robyn Bagley
  • Robyn Bagley

As charter schools continue to grow within Utah’s educational system, the expanded opportunities don’t apply only to students. People who make money by advising new charter schools, managing existing charters or developing instructional materials have also found increased opportunities—of the for-profit kind—by becoming leaders of the very association that provides oversight and guidance to the schools. At the same time, supporters of school-choice vouchers have secured a majority membership on the board of that same association.

Earlier this month, the director of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools (UAPCS), Steve Winitsky, and finance man Ram Prasad Boppana resigned, leaving Kim Frank as interim director. While the resignations came at the same time as a dispute on the board about new, pro-voucher appointees, and questions are being raised about whether the two were forced out to protect the business interests of board members, Frank is just dumbfounded by all the snipes, “rumors and accusations” that landed her in the interim position.

Frank had been director of policy and advocacy for the association. It was a good place for her, as the wife of Rep. Craig Frank, R-Cedar Hills, who is a member of the House Education Committee. Craig Frank is a darling of the Utah Taxpayers Association, getting a 100 percent score this year for getting “government out of the business of business.” That’s a good match for UAPCS, which this year seems to be getting business into the business of government.

UAPCS was formed to provide a uniform voice to both the Utah State Board of Education and the Legislature, which passed the first charter school law in 1998. Since then, the number of charter schools has mushroomed from eight to 82, about 75 percent of which belong to UAPCS. In the confusing array of educational choice—both public and private—UAPCS has been a useful tool for schools seeking to navigate the bureaucratic layers of accountability.

But, as the Board of Education and the association move further to the right, the focus has moved from public accountability to personal advancement. Call it conflict of interest.

Craig Frank himself has benefited from the association, contracting for a federal grant of $85,000 through the association to write instructional materials. But, that is nothing compared to the spoils awaiting association board members.

“Charter schools are turning into for-profit business opportunities for their board members,” says longtime government watchdog Claire Geddes.

The association board had two vacancies to fill. In the past, nominees were self-proposed and appointed by the board to fill vacant terms until a full membership vote could be taken. This time, board chairman Mark Cluff offered two nominees who were voted on during a hasty telephone meeting, taking even Winitsky by surprise.

The new members were Robyn Bagley and Jed Stevenson—both tied closely to Parents for Choice in Education (PCE), of voucher infamy. Along with Cluff and board member Lincoln Fillmore, they gave the board an instant majority of private-choice advocates.

When the appointments were announced to members, Soldier Hollow Charter School Principal Chuck Weber was one of several who balked. “It seems like the board chairman manipulated the process … without asking any of the directors if they had suggestions for board members,” he says. “Four of the seven board members now are either directors or trustees of PCE, and I don’t think you have to be a brain surgeon to see the writing on the wall.”

Elections—usually held in June—were immediately cancelled, ostensibly to give the new board time to clean up its long-flawed bylaws. It also gives the association time to bring on new member schools favoring the nominees and to get rid of the naysayers. Weber sees this as a stunning coup for PCE, whose reputation is repugnant to public-school advocates. And Winitsky’s resignation, termed as a philosophical difference, seemed to verify the discord.

Kim Frank notes that the voucher issue is nothing new to the association, and she doesn’t believe that whether a person supports vouchers should be a litmus test for board membership. Almost half of UAPCS schools favored vouchers, she says. And she doesn’t hide her own conservative leanings, either. On the charter association’s Twitter site, @utcharterchat, Frank most recently asked if anyone has Glenn Beck tickets.

But, coiled in any philosophical issue is a larger question of conflict and profiteering. Several charter management companies are now represented on UAPCS, something Weber believes sends a message about preference to membership.

It’s a curious coincidence that these conflicts were increasing just as Winitsky was forming plans for the association to provide some management services. That kind of competition, most certainly, would cut into the business of the for-profit management companies.

Board member Fillmore, for instance, is president and founder of Charter Solutions, “a value-added service provider that offers charter schools a comprehensive package of start-up and management services.”

Because of that, Weber has even refused to accept breakfasts provided by Fillmore at association meetings. “I don’t feel like I should be eating someone’s food who’s on the board and also a businessman benefiting from charter schools,” Weber says.

Fillmore started as business manager at Navigator Point Charter School in 2005. “The next year, 15 charters opened. There was a lot of demand and little supply of experienced charter-school people,” Fillmore says. Obviously, he saw an opportunity and took it.

New to the board, Stevenson’s Academica West provides management services to 10 charter schools—none of which have been members of UAPCS.

“What a dandy thing that is for him,” says Geddes. “It’s rather bizarre, and it is really problematic. We’ve seen it in school construction.” Geddes was referring to former legislators who sponsored legislation funding new charter schools and then profited from contracts to build those schools.

Kim Frank, however, says that the conflicts of Fillmore and Stevenson are “actually a benefit to the association, as they have both offered their expertise and abilities for the use of strengthening the association and the charter-school movement as a whole. Who wants to see the success of the movement more than folks working in it?”

Bagley, in fact, is director of two virtual schools—a euphemism for home-schools that have long sought to legitimize vouchers. Charter schools receive public funds and are required to follow state core curriculum, but are also subject to fewer rules and regulations in the name of innovation. Like all public schools, they must take any student who applies if they have room.

It’s not so much the voucher issue itself, says Winitsky, as it is that proponents are just a poor fit to the association. “There are elements of the anti-government, free-market voucher folks that are really outside the charter school movement, although they see charter schools as close to where they want to go.”

And if that’s not about vouchers, it’s probably about profits.

Editor’s note: Katharine Biele is a founding parent of charter school Salt Lake Arts Academy.