If the national performance rankings of every high school in the nation, published this week by U.S. News, proves anything, it is that charter schools have contributed mightily to education in the United States. 

That makes President Joe Biden’s attack on them, through proposed new rules by his Department of Education, a curious thing. He would make it harder for parents to send their children to schools that might help their children succeed.

The rankings, by the way, also show that Utah has a long way to go toward educational excellence, but first things first.

Charter schools held their own against traditional public schools, with the best one — Signature School in Evansville, Indiana — in third place overall. In Utah, they did even better, with charters occupying the top six slots for best performing schools in the state. 

Charters are public schools that have the freedom to employ teaching methods different from those in traditional private schools. They are held to performance standards set out in their charters. In Utah, they are tuition-free and must accept all students, sometimes using lotteries to decide which students fill limited slots.

Full disclosure: One of my children attended a charter high school, which may have saved him academically. He’s now a successful adult with a family of his own. My wife and I have other children who attended traditional public schools and are now successful adults too. Children, like adults, respond differently under equal circumstances. That’s why choices are good.

These high schools rank Utah’s best in U.S. News

Every president since at least Bill Clinton has agreed with this premise, until now. In recent years, Democrats — especially those in the more progressive wing of the party — have begun to attack. A report in The Hill said their rationale varies from saying charters are bad for racial integration, to that they rob regular schools of funding or are not accountable.

And now, the Department of Education is proposing rules that set up almost impossible standards for charters to qualify for federal Charter School Program funding. Among other things, the schools must demonstrate that they serve a diverse population, which could penalize inner-city charters for not having white students, and they must show that they meet an unmet demand by regular public schools — defined as showing evidence that other schools are overcrowded. The new rules fill 13 pages.

Utah’s charters ought to breathe a sigh of relief. None of them accepts a dime of federal Charter School Program money. But when I spoke with Utah Association of Public Charter Schools Executive Director Royce Van Tassell, he wasn’t breathing easy, at all.

If those rules take effect, he says, they could eventually migrate to other federal funds that do benefit Utah charters. “Empty slots (in other public schools) is an absurd definition of unmet need,” he said.

In a letter to Education Secretary Miguel Angel Cardona, he said research shows “parents choose a school because they want a safer school, a more rigorous academic environment, better services for their child with a disability, or because the non-neighborhood school is where many of the parents’ friends’ children go to school. Families may choose a school because its philosophy or teaching style more closely matches what they believe in or grew up with.”

On the subject of racial integration, Utah’s best-performing charters offer some encouraging statistics. 

Utah’s overall minority population makes up less than 14% of the population, but the top performing charter high school, Beehive Science and Technology, has a 40.4% minority enrollment, according to US News. The No. 4 school, Academy for Math Engineering and Science, enrolls 47.2% minority students, and No. 5 Itineris, in West Jordan, enrolls 43.7%. Draper’s American Preparatory Academy, which finished 22nd among all state high schools, enrolls 51.8% minorities.

A word about performance: It’s alarmingly poor in Utah. At the best charter high school, which ranked 305th nationally, students scored in the 58th percentile for reading on state assessment tests, which still was much better than the statewide average of the 40th percentile.

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At the top-performing traditional high school, Corner Canyon (980th nationally), students performed in the 54th, 60th and 52nd percentiles in math, reading and science, respectively. Each was markedly better than the state average.

Utah’s politicians and education leaders must come to grips with these scores. 

Van Tassell, who agrees all schools should do better, strikes a note of optimism, saying Utah’s charters are not constantly at war with traditional schools, as they are in some other states. He even points to some examples of cooperation among the two in parts of the state.

That’s good, because the U.S. News report makes it clear that the road to better schools will benefit from more, not less, choices.

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