Two decades ago, Pinnacle Canyon Academy, a charter school in Price, had the audacity to start a high school in a wing of a local motel.

If you know anything about charters, this really wasn’t such a crazy idea. Many make due with whatever facilities are available and leave the glass palaces to the public schools in traditional districts.

But motels don’t exactly conjure idyllic images of school days and the three R's.

Principal Roberta Hardy today likes to joke about how nice it was to have a bathroom in every classroom, and maid service. Desks were set up along each room’s periphery.

And yet the school had so many applicants that first year it had to hold a lottery for admission, ending up with 200 names on a waiting list.

“You have to ask,” she told me earlier this week, “what was the appeal if you had close to 200 kids whose parents were willing to put them in motel rooms for school?”

Or, put differently, what did those parents believe was lacking in their traditional public school that would cause them to get in line for such a thing?

That’s a question that still resonates 20 years later. The answer still seems as elusive as clouds on the horizon, and that may be OK.

Sunday is the start of National Charter School Week, an annual time to pause and look at this movement aimed at injecting choice and innovation into public school systems. In Utah, this began in 1998 with seven pilot schools run by a diverse group of teachers, administrators and parents. Today, according to the latest annual report, the state has 134 charter schools, with an enrollment of 78,384.

Charters, it may be safe to say, are here to stay. But it also may be safe to say the controversy over them is, as well. Ask whether they have improved public education and answers don’t come easy. And unlike traditional district schools, they can shut down, as may happen soon to the American International School of Utah.

The annual report notes that students at charters performed a little lower than those at district schools on state proficiency tests in 2018. That may be interesting, but is it relevant? Who is to say how Utah students would perform today if charters never came along? What is the value of the highest-performing schools, which are among the best in the state?

Even these questions may be too narrow. A better one may be, are Utah schools where they should be when it comes to preparing students to compete globally?

Sonia Woodbury, a founding partner of City Academy, a charter high school in Salt Lake City, is quick to extoll the great things she has seen over the past 20 years, especially when it comes to helping failing students succeed. But she wonders whether enough thought is going into the future of public education overall.

“I think we should ask ourselves in what way are we better?” she said. “How do we want to do public education?”

International PISA tests consistently show American 15-year-olds ranking in the middle of the pack in science, math and reading compared to their peers internationally. Twenty years ago, arguments raged over whether to use public money to fund private school vouchers. Voters in Utah eventually overturned legislative efforts to do that. Charters were seen as a milder way to inject competition under the public school umbrella.

Amid these weighty debates, the value of choice cannot be measured, but it should not be dismissed, either.

I speak from personal experience. Years ago, one of my sons felt unchallenged in high school. My wife and I transferred him to a charter school, where he thrived.

Another son, meanwhile, thrived at the traditional high school and had no interest in a charter. Our ability to choose may not have moved the needle a millimeter in the argument over whether charters or traditional district schools perform better, but it made all the difference to the success of those two boys.

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That echoes a point made by Hardy, whose school in Price has lost enrollment in recent years because of a lagging local economy. Unlike in those early days, she no longer relies on bellhops or maid service. Her school meets in a former parochial school building.

And, unlike in the beginning, 70 percent of her students now qualify for free or reduced price lunches, and nearly a quarter require special education.

“I don’t want to say we do better than everybody else,” she said. “We give people another choice.”

It’s hard to argue with that.

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