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

Published: Monday, March 8 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

Brian Allen, who first initiated charter school legislation in Utah, stands in the state Capitol rotunda last week.

Keith Johnson, Deseret News

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.

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