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Utah pays private companies big money to fix schools

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by Chris Jones and Nadia Pflaum

Utah doles out $7 million to private companies to help improve school with failing performance, but the districts argues that money could be better spent if given directly to them. Beyond the Books investigates. (Photo: KUTV)

It was an emotional meeting in front of the Granite School Board as parents, some with tears in their eyes, addressed the board, heartbroken that their community school, Oquirrh Hills Elementary, could soon shut down.

Oquirrh Hills has had poor state assessment scores for years and, as part of a law passed in 2015, one of the options, if they could not improve, would be possible closure.

That law is controversial because it allows a small group of private companies, not school districts, to divvy up about $7 million in taxpayer money to fix the first batch of failing schools. Many have hailed the program as a success since 18 of the 26 schools who entered the program saw their year-to-year grade increase. But seven schools didn’t increase by a letter grade and one, Oquirrh Hills, saw its letter grade decrease.

The biggest player in the turnaround business is Education Direction. The company was responsible for 15 schools, 10 of which saw improved grades. 5 didn’t see any improvement at all and one, Oquirrh Hills, saw its grade drop.

“I think there are some factors at play,” said Dr. Hollie Pettersson with Education Direction. “If I knew exactly why they weren’t successful, they would have been successful because we would have taken care of that challenge.”

Beyond The Books discovered that Education Direction uses the same template, with some variations, on all the schools with whom they work. Reporter Chris Jones asked Pettersson why the state should pay her company 15 times.

“Your question of scale is really one that is outside my control, but what I can say is that outside eyes and ears matter,” Pettersson said.

Officials with the Granite School district, who had 10 schools in the turnaround program, say they have been working with their troubled schools, with success, for years. Granite’s Director of School Improvement, Mitch Nerdin, says if the state is going to dole out money, why not keep it in the schools?

“Why don’t we use that money to invest in the teachers and invest in the place where we actually have to improve?” said Nerdin.

Beyond the Books went to the person who made the turnaround law possible, former State Senate President Wayne Niederhauser. Niederhauser said the turnaround law has been a great success, and that even more money needs to be dedicated to the program.

Niederhauser did say there should be consequences for Education Direction since five of the schools it was tasked with did not improve or received a worse grade.

“Hopefully they don’t get hired again,” Niederhauser said.

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