Utah's first charter school, the Tuacahn High School for the Performing Arts in Ivins, opened its doors in the fall of 1999 amid a good deal of grumbling from the local educational establishment. Thirteen years later, Utah has more than 90 charter schools in operation, with seven opening this year. Nearly 10 percent of Utah's K-12 schoolchildren now attend a charter school, and much of the resistance to this alternative form of public education has dissipated with time. That's because charter schools have improved tremendously in terms of academic performance, and they've been able to discover innovative ways to do more with less.
Still, misperceptions about charter schools persist. Many don't realize that charter schools are public schools that charge no tuition, accept all students, employ academically certified schoolteachers and receive less public money than traditional public schools. Limited dollars for charter schools require creative solutions. Consequently, they find it necessary to make their public money go further, which helps Utah accommodate the burgeoning number of new students entering the public system every year.
All this would be irrelevant if charter schools weren't producing positive results. Yet a new study concludes that even a charter school that gets off to a rocky start tends to improve quickly and, after a few years in operation, a charter school's test scores and overall academic performance rival and often exceed those of a comparable traditional public school. This is consistent with the predictions of education reform advocates, who have long maintained that charter schools introduce market forces into the public system that improve both charter schools and local neighborhood schools. Educators are compelled to raise their game in order to better compete for students.
This is the same argument that supporters of school vouchers have made for years, and there is increasing evidence that vouchers work, too. An extensive Harvard University-Brooking Institution study has found that "using a voucher to attend private school increased the overall college enrollment rate among African-Americans by 24 percent."
Of course, Utah rejected private school vouchers at the ballot box five years ago, and there seems to be no legislative appetite to raise the issue again. But both voucher proponents and traditional educators have discovered common ground in charter schools, which introduce elements of choice into the public system without turning to private schools.
That's why we're pleased with the initial results of Utah's charter school experiment, and we look forward to continued educational innovation in the years ahead.