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Utah's Republican candidates for governor go rah-rah for the state's public charter schools.

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"We have to have an educational system in this state that brings out the genius," an effusive Jon Huntsman Jr. said. "That means choice, that means charter options, it means every good idea we can come up with." - RAY HOWZE
  • Ray Howze
  • "We have to have an educational system in this state that brings out the genius," an effusive Jon Huntsman Jr. said. "That means choice, that means charter options, it means every good idea we can come up with."

Utah's 2020 legislative session kicked off Monday morning. While lawmakers were brushing up on their bills, though, the state's six Republican gubernatorial candidates stopped by the rotunda to remind charter school students they care about them, too.

As part of Charter Day on the Hill, the candidates used the opportunity to speak to the roughly 500 students gathered on the marble staircase inside the Capitol to stump for charter schools' importance in Utah's education landscape.

"We have some problems in our state and none of those problems matter if we don't get education right," GOP candidate Lt. Gov. Spencer Cox said. "If I'm elected governor, that will be very different. One day every week as governor will be focused 100% on education. We need to unleash innovation, cut regulation and let the entrepreneurs of the classroom do their thing."

Charter school students make up about 12% of students in Utah. In a state that consistently ranks toward the bottom in the country when it comes to per pupil spending, some parents decide to opt for the charter route and praise the option of school choice.

But charter schools and their relationships with legislators have been muddy at times. A February 2019 report from KUTV Channel 2 pointed out that a number of lawmakers have also served on charter school boards. Sen. Lincoln Fillmore, R-South Jordan, for example, ran Charter Solutions, a company that collected $5.7 million in fees and taxpayer money from charter schools from 2015-18. Fillmore, according to the report, did not sponsor any legislation that affected charter schools but he did answer questions on some of those bills on the Senate floor.

Another gubernatorial candidate, former House Speaker Greg Hughes, previously served on the board for the charter school Summit Academy. Speaking to the students, Hughes said he always wanted to hear from charter school kids while serving in the House.

"I was a parent on a board of a charter school and I knew that if lawmakers got to meet you ... lawmakers would want to help you," Hughes said. "They'd want to help you enjoy your charter school. I think that you need to make sure that the next governor of the state loves our public charter schools, fights for you and our schools and makes sure that's an option for all of our families."

The KUTV report also highlighted 10 other current and former legislators who have sat on charter school boards, including Sen. Stuart Adams, R-Layton; Rep. Kim Coleman, R-West Jordan; Sen. Jerry Stevenson, R-Layton; and former lawmakers Howard Stephenson and Mark Madsen, to name a few.

Royce Van Tassell, a lobbyist and executive director of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, told City Weekly that while charter schools have a number of benefits, there is room for improvement.

"Utah has one of the highest percentages of students that attend charter schools in the country. We're going to continue to grow, but we need to do better with our academics," Van Tassell said. "So we're going to continue to reach out to our elected officials and say how can we do a better job at meeting the specific needs of specific children. ... Our hope is that charter schools let parents and administrators and teachers be partners in a child's education."

In an August op-ed for The Salt Lake Tribune, Van Tassell wrote that having to close the American International School of Utah, which had a lengthy history of financial and academic struggles, was a "feature, not a bug" of the charter school system.

"Given the persistence of at least mediocrity, and at times outright failure in public education, it's clear that doing something different ('innovation'!) is the only way our children will get the schools they deserve," Van Tassell wrote.

Four other candidates also shared their opinions on charter schools at the rally.

Former Utah GOP chairman Thomas Wright said selecting a charter school can give students more choices to find their passion.

"That's the beauty of charter schools, and the option of choosing what you want to study is that you can find what you love at an early age," he said. "By doing that, you can set yourself on a pathway to success. ... We need to give teachers the flexibility to teach you the way that you will respond best."

Salt Lake County Councilwoman Aimee Winder Newton said she wanted to focus on the teacher shortage if elected governor.

"That's something we have to fix so that you can have the very best education possible," she said. "I'm a big supporter of school choice and all of you have parents who elected to put you in a charter school."

Meanwhile, Jon Huntsman Jr. had the students raise their right hand and promise to tell their parents they were thankful to them for taking a strong interest in their education.

"I've raised seven kids and you know what I found? Everyone learns differently," Huntsman said. "So as we go forward, are we going to have to have education options that allow kids to progress based upon their learning style, based upon their approach to the classroom, based upon the genius they have inside? We have to have an educational system in this state that brings out the genius. That means choice, that means charter options, it means every good idea we can come up with."

Provo businessman Jeff Burningham wrapped up the speeches by having the students repeat the phrase, "Choice creates competition; competition creates better results."

"We need choice in our education. We need choice in our governor," he said. "I'm not a politician. I've never run for office before. I've been an entrepreneur my entire career. ... I know that choice creates competition and competition creates better results because I've lived it."

When it comes to Utah's GOP gubernatorial race, Van Tassell says charter schools can be a vital addition to a candidates' platform—partly because of the seat's close relationship with the schools.

"Governors appoint the members of the state charter school board," Van Tassell said. "So taking an active interest in who those candidates are and saying, 'Let's get the brightest minds, the people who see the big picture,' and say, 'Let's figure out how we can meet the needs of individual children.' ... Let's have somebody that wants to make charter schools the centerpiece of our wonderful public education system."

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