By Callie Buys
Days after Utah educators evaluated the state”s growing charter school program, the U.S. Department of Education announced more than $2 million in federal grants to go to Utah charter schools this year.
Thirty-five states, including Utah, will receive part of the $198 million package designated to help set up, develop and expand charter schools across the nation.
“Charter schools are a critically important part of the education landscape in this country,” U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige said in a news release. “Thanks to charter schools, more parents have more choices than ever before.”
The Department of Education reports that approximately 2,400 charter schools operate this school year in 38 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.
Approximately 1,400 students in Utah attend charter schools, according to a report by the Center for the School of the Future at Utah State University.
The 129-page report, released at the Utah State Board of Education meeting Oct. 4, assesses strengths and weaknesses of Utah”s original charter schools.
Utah currently has 12 charter schools, with another set to open in January 2003. The report only evaluates the initial eight schools allowed by Utah”s original charter law.
Elementary school students in charter schools generally outscored their local school district peers on standardized tests, according to the report.
Students at secondary charter schools scored lower on standardized tests than students in local school districts; however, three of the four secondary charter schools serve at-risk youth populations, said Patricia Bradley, planning and education programs coordinator for the Utah State Office of Education.
Information in the report didn”t surprise Bradley.
“Where (charter) schools are having difficulty, public schools everywhere are having difficulty,” she said.
Report authors suggested that the state establish measurable goals for charter schools, track student and teacher performance and create a charter school handbook.
After reading the report, the school board recommended cautiously expanding the charter school program in Utah, with a few additional requirements: background checks on charter school applicants, increased collaboration with local school districts and limits on the percentage of state-chartered schools.
“Generally, charter schools are doing a good job of carrying out all of their rule and statutory responsibilities,” the report states.
Charter schools, heralded as option-providing outlets for parents and educators, are tuition-free public schools that contract with either the local school district or the state board of education to provide distinct educational services.
Minnesota passed the first charter school law in 1991. Utah legislators followed suit in 1998, allowing eight original charter schools. The law has since been changed to allow up to 16 charter schools and six magnet charter schools focused on math, science and technology.
Julie Adamic, director and co-founder of John Hancock Charter School in Pleasant Grove, carefully studied charter schools before whole-heartedly advocating the charter legislation.
“Getting the original law passed was a Herculean task,” Adamic said. “I think any group of dedicated parents can do it (start a charter school). I did it, our board did it. It is very doable.”
Most charter schools in Utah contracted with the state board of education rather than the local school board, though state educators would like to reverse that trend. Applicants must now submit charters to the local school board first, and if rejected can appeal to the State Board of Education.
“There”s nothing really that prevents any district from opening up a school, because these schools are held to the same state and federal requirements,” Bradley said.
To remain in operation, a charter school must meet its charter, which includes information about how the school will educate and operate.
If more students apply for a charter school than can be admitted, the school must randomly select students based on a lottery system.
“Parents for a large part mention to me that they like a small school environment,” Bradley said. “The school itself is smaller and that makes a great deal of difference.”
Educators and report authors alike emphasize that charter schools should not be lumped together to evaluate individual programs.
“Each one is pretty unique. You can”t speak of them as a whole,” Bradley said.
While some Utah charters aim to educate specific populations, others provide curriculum centered on the environment or on creative arts.
Charter schools receive funding from the state for each student in the school. The schools do not receive funding for facility and operation costs.
“Money is always really tight,” said parent Lindsay Matson. Matson has two children attending John Hancock Charter School.
At the Oct.4 meeting, the board approved changes in charter school funding to allow charter schools to share some capital expenditure money.
Charter school advocates also plan to take their case to the Utah legislature this year to resolve a financial technicality in charter school legislation. Districts have been withholding some money designated for charter schools, interpreting the law differently than legislators intended in the original charter school legislation, Adamic said.
“If the money is supposed to follow the student, then the money is supposed to follow the student,” she said.
John Hancock Charter School relies on more than state funding to operate. The school received $100,000 in federal grants last year and $100,000 this year, Adamic said.
The school also received money from the Salt Lake Organizing Committee surplus.
“When you”re trying to start a school … it really is not a lot,” she said. “We are struggling financially, just like any other public school.”