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Utah charter schools: After 10 years, proponents say they're a success, but not everyone agrees

SALT LAKE CITY — Brian Allen was furious. An involved father of four, he'd worked for years to land an invitation to sit on the community council at Cottonwood Heights Elementary and all they could talk about was eggs. Eggs. Oatmeal and eggs.

"Can we talk about how to direct more money into classrooms?" he wanted to know.

The district manages the budget, he was coldly informed.

"What about lowering class sizes, can we talk about that?"

No luck.

"But we don't need a school breakfast program," Allen sputtered. "Schools are for educating, not feeding."

The council never invited him back.

That wasn't the last the education community saw of Allen. The stout former police officer, known for his cartoon-inspired bow ties, combustible mannerisms and rock-hard determination, made it his personal mission to give parents a voice in education. He scouted the nation for inspiration, snatched up a seat in the Legislature and, in 1997, put together a task force to study the viability of starting a charter school program in Utah. Thirteen years later, Allen is the chairman of the State Charter School Board. This year, the alternative public school system he created is celebrating its 10th anniversary.

Allen believes the 72 publicly funded, independently run schools he oversees fulfill his dream of involving parents in education, focusing money in the classroom, raising test scores and encouraging innovation. But even after a decade of heated battle with mainstream educators, some of whom see charter schools as a drain on precious education resources, and others who see them as elitist agents of segregation and white flight, his battle is not completely over. Charter schools get less money than district schools on average. And despite demand for more charters, Utah law limits growth to just 1.4 percent of district enrollment.

This year, charter school advocates say, is the year all that changes.

"We need to start recognizing charter schools as public schools," said Judi Clark, executive director of the nonprofit Parents for Choice in Education. "They are not some crazy experiment anymore. Charter schools are doing it better than district schools and they're doing it for less money."

Despite dauntingly low education budget predictions, the Legislature is tossing around proposals that would remove the cap on charter growth and — advocates hope — ensure funding parity. More money for charter schools means less money for districts, however, causing some to question charter schools' contributions to Utah's educational landscape.

Parental choice

For parents like Allen, charter schools represent democracy in the public school system.

"My primary motivation is to empower parents," Allen said. "The more parents are involved in a kid's education, the better he does."

The most obvious indication of charter schools' success, advocates argue, is the growth of the movement. Since legislators divvied up the cash for eight experimental charter schools in 2000, more than 34,000 Utah students have packed their bags, snagged their per-student state funding and forsaken districts. In ten years, the number of charters has rocketed from 8 to 72.

Virtually anyone in Utah can apply for a "charter" — or a contract with the state government — that determines how a school will be run. In exchange for tax dollars, these schools, which are run autonomously by community groups, must demonstrate increased accountability to the state. Parents have successfully founded more than 90 percent of Utah's charter schools.

Early on, skeptics cried "heresy," Allen said. "The idea of a group of people with no educational background getting together and starting a school — it was heretical," Allen said.

It's been a rough ride for some, but with the help of dedicated volunteers, all but one charter school have been able to make things work. Dream Academy, a school intended to help students with criminal records, lost its charter in 2005 after mismanaging financial reports.

To see how a charter school is designed to work, there is perhaps no better illustration than American Preparatory Academy in Draper, where Allen's three grandchildren go to school.

The school was founded in 2003, by Carolyn Sharette, a nurse who had a psychology degree but no teaching experience. She learned all her administration skills at home, helping seven children navigate their homework and watching 14 nieces and nephews flounder with theirs.

"I wasn't unhappy with the public school system," said Sharette, who has now founded three charter schools. "We just wanted another option."

In American Preparatory's first year, one class cycled through five different teachers. Elsewhere in the state, charter schools were meeting in dilapidated office buildings because they didn't have school buildings to meet in yet. Overwhelmed parent administrators found themselves with hundreds of hungry children and no school lunch arrangements. Textbooks didn't get ordered in time for school, so teachers started class without supplies.

"In the beginning, I sort of went back and forth — do I stay?" said Riverton father Danny O'Very, whose four children enrolled at the Draper charter on its first day of business. "But in the end, I recognized that this is where I can have a say in how my child is educated."

Despite the school's rough start, O'Very now jokes that his children got into the school "on providence." Today, the school boasts a waiting list of 3,200 students. In Utah there are 15,000 students waiting for seats in charter schools.

"You can tell just from the fact that there are still people seeking charters that this is a successful reform movement," said Marlies Burns, charter school director at the State Office of Education. "Parents want to be a part of their children's education."

Not all charter schools have kids waiting to get in, though. Some, like Merit Academy in Springville and Rockwell Charter School in Eagle Mountain, have struggled to fill seats.

Merit Academy's troubles started before the school even opened its doors. Because the state doesn't pass out charter funding until two months before classes begin, the high school was still under construction on the first day of school. Teenagers finished out the 2008-09 school year in portables. Although the school hoped to enroll 600 students, only 100 stuck around.

Merit's building is now completed, but the big, castle-like school only has 285 kids — less than half its capacity. Some classes have just two students.

"We're small, but I like it," said Asher Chapman, a 15-year-old sophomore, as he navigated his way through Merit's near-empty hallways between classes on a recent afternoon. "Everybody knows each other. There are no cliques."

Student achievement

The idea, Allen said, is to use charter schools as a tool to "discover best practices."

"Charter schools weren't meant to be an alternative," Allen said. "They were meant to be a better alternative."

American Preparatory third-graders outscored other Utah children by 26 percentage points on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills in 2009. Fifth-graders scored in the 77th percentile, compared to a state average of 56th.

Most charter schools, though, don't outperform district schools.

Little has been done to measure the academic proficiency of Utah charter schools, but, on a national level, only 17 percent of charter schools report academic gains significantly better than traditional public schools, according to a 2009 Stanford University analysis of test scores. Thirty-seven percent of charter schools scored worse than their district-school counterparts.

Burns, charter director for the State Office of Education, is coordinating with Stanford on a study that looks at Utah's charter schools. At a glance, she said, Utah charters appear to be on par with district schools. Some test high. Some test low.

"We don't know legitimately if the charter school experiment is a success academically," she said. "We can look at scores, but unless we have a measure that's consistent across all charter schools in Utah, we just don't know."

Regardless of overall trends, charter school advocates argue that individual students outperform their district-school counterparts. These students flourish in a different environment because they learn differently, said Kim Frank, director of policy and advocacy for the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools.

Curtis Dimond of West Valley City swears Beehive Science & Technology Academy in Salt Lake City turned his ninth-grader's life around. Dimond tried out several public and private schools before discovering the charter.

"My son is a timid learner," he said. "In those other schools he just disappeared. His grades were very poor. But at Beehive they have a mentoring program after hours. The teachers sat down with him one-on-one until he got the concepts."

Critics point out, however, that charter schools don't deal with the same academic challenges district schools do.

Charter schools can cap class sizes. At some charter schools, like Spectrum Academy, there are only 12 students in each room. Traditional public schools, however, have to enroll whoever applies.

At APA, there is a teacher and a certified instructor in every classroom of 28 children, meaning there's time for each student to get one-on-one attention. While the student-to-teacher ratio in Jordan School District is 27 to 1, many classes have more than 30 students. Facing a $30 million budget deficit, the district is contemplating increasing class sizes by four.

Others say charters are elitist and promote segregation.

Charter schools aren't required to provide busing for low-income students, and most don't. And while the percentage of minority students and students who take special education classes in charters is similar to those in district schools, most kids from these groups attend schools designed for them.

Spectrum Academy in North Salt Lake, for example, specializes in serving children with autism. Nearly every student at the school has special needs.

At The School for New Americans in West Valley City, where more than 50 percent of the student body are immigrant children or refugees, nearly every student is a minority. At others, like APA, nearly every child is white.

This is a trend that is playing out across the country, especially in the West. A report released last month by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA found that "charter schools continue to stratify students by race, class, and possibly language, and are more racially isolated than traditional public schools."

"The charter movement has flourished in a period of retreat on civil rights," UCLA Professor Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project said in a statement when the study was released. "The vision of a successfully integrated society — one that carries real opportunities for historically excluded groups of students to enter the mainstream — ought to be a defining characteristic of charter schools."

Carol Lear, director of school law and legislation for the State Office of Education, said that charters in Utah started out as "white flight schools." But now, she said, schools are beginning to "specialize more in helping disadvantaged populations."


When it came to finances, Allen had big ambitions for charter schools.

"The goal was to channel money into the classroom rather than using it to support bureaucracy," he said. In this way, Allen said most charter schools have excelled, although it has required creativity.

Charter schools bid for curriculum on eBay and purchase texts from used-book stores. Many use refurbished white boards and desks. While Utah charter schools are prohibited from requiring volunteer hours, most "strongly encourage" it. Some schools log more than 18,000 volunteer hours.

It's difficult to walk down the hall at APA without running into someone's mom. Parents run the library system, serve lunch, put up bulletin boards, coordinate extracurricular activities and help teachers correct homework. One parent even scours garage sales for cheap furniture and salvages used school equipment from demolition sites.

While charters enjoy the spending freedom that comes from independence, operating outside established school districts complicates funding.

District schools get more than one-third of their money from local property tax revenue. Because charter schools cannot levy taxes, they rely almost completely on the state for money. The disparity in sourcing translates into lower-than-average per-student funding for charter schools.

In the early days, the Legislature budgeted conservatively. If the eight-school experiment proved successful, charters would get progressively more money until they were on par with their district-run counterparts. Charter advocates argue the schools have long since proven their worth, but are still funded at about $500 less per student than the state average.

School districts point out, though, that because charter schools do not levy their own taxes, a charter school student costs the state about $500 more.

The Legislature set aside $45 million for charter schools last year. School districts, which are required to donate a portion of their property tax revenue, dumped $5.6 million into the pot.

"It's upsetting," said Martin Bates, assistant superintendent for Granite School District. "These schools were sold to the public as being cheaper. They are not cheaper."

And not all charter schools manage money well. Some have struggled to stay afloat.

Three schools finished the 2009 school year in the red. The State Charter School Board is monitoring several schools with a history of overspending.

"These founders have great vision, but sometimes they don't know how to use their money to make that link to reality," said Rob Muhlestein, who, as CEO of Harmony Educational Services, helps Utah charter schools with business management.


Before initiating charter school legislation in Utah, Allen toured the country examining the education practices of several different states. While visiting Ellis Island in New York, he ran across a museum display depicting a classroom from the turn of the century.

"It looked just like the classroom at my kids' school," he said. "This system hasn't evolved in 100 years."

With greater freedom and fewer bureaucratic rules, Allen hoped charter schools could be "laboratories" for change and experimentation. Eventually, Allen envisioned district schools would borrow and implement ideas from charters, he said.

In Allen's opinion, the charter school movement has only been "marginally successful" in promoting innovation, he said. Some schools regularly break creative barriers, others, he said, are just "back-to-basic reading, writing and arithmetic schools."

Still, there's a charter school for just about any type of student. College-bound children have the most options, including some schools where students can earn an associates degree before graduation. Utah Virtual Academy is completely online. The School For New Americans in West Valley City caters to English language learners. There are schools specializing in exploration, film, music and science — among other things.

APA doesn't have a theme, but it's easy to see and hear, with just one walk down the hall, how the school is different. The children are sitting up straight, attentive, hands folded on their desks. When the teacher asks a question, they respond in unison.

Laura Campbell, the school's director, calls the method "direct instruction" because teachers get immediate feedback about the children's learning. The students seem to love the rhythmic feeling of the classroom. When it's time to practice diagramming sentences aloud, there are no groans, just chipper chanting. The children use hand gestures to indicate the different parts of speech.

"It's kind of like a game," said Kiesa Keller, 10, a fourth grader at American Preparatory. "It's really easy to pay attention because it's exciting."

Like Allen hoped, some charter schools swap ideas, but when it comes to sharing methods with districts, only a few charter schools have made headway.

Some districts work well with charter schools, while others "hate" them, said Bates, the assistant superintendent for Granite School District. Several school districts won't even speak directly to the charters, preferring instead to communicate with the State Office of Education as a liaison.

In Granite School District, the Academy for Math, Engineering and Science (AMES) works closely with Cottonwood High School in Salt Lake City. AMES students play on sports teams at Cottonwood High. Cottonwood High takes academic tips from AMES.

"The kids' achievement at AMES is really good," Bates said. "We are in the process of studying what they are doing in the classroom. They have similar demographics, so we think we could get similar results."

When Howard Hedley, a member of APA's board of directors, approached Jordan School District about offering tutoring help for students at schools that didn't meet federal Adequate Yearly Progress standards, however, he was pushed aside. The district allowed him to set up a booth at Back to School Night but put him in the cafeteria behind closed doors. He only attracted the attention of three people — and they only noticed because they took a wrong turn.

"I have no dream to keep building more and more charter schools," said Hedley, who is also president of the Utah Bankers Association. "To me, that's not the goal of this system. The goal is to find things that work and get them into practice in public schools as soon as possible. Because of animosity, though, there is a group barrier to those productive next steps."

While he admits the charter school system isn't perfect, Allen remains optimistic.

"I'm a bit of a 'Pollyanna,'" he said.

He spends his days lobbying the Legislature. Fingers crossed.

"We've created a good system," he said. "I wanted to catch the kids who were falling through the cracks. That's what we're doing."