Now that Utah's schools have each received a letter grade as part of a state-imposed accountability system, some are calling attention to the fact that Utah's charter schools received roughly the same A through F grade distribution as traditional public schools. Critics of charter schools might be tempted to seize on that information as evidence that there's no need for the charter alternative if both traditional schools and charter schools produce similar results.
If so, they ought to resist that temptation.
It's also worth noting that charters are overrepresented at the top end of the spectrum. The top two graded high schools in the state are charter schools, and charters make up four out of the top 10.
But the fact that charter schools even perform comparably to other public schools ought to be a wakeup call for the educational establishment, given that these schools achieved just as well using fewer resources than other schools. The inequities in funding for charter school students and traditional schools aren't as great as they were when the first Utah charter school opened its doors at the end of the last century, but the disparity remains.
Unlike school districts, charters are unable to collect taxes on a local level. The state Legislature therefore established a local replacement fund to make up for the lost revenue, but the amount of money allocated per student in a charter school still lags behind what is spent on kids in traditional schools, sometimes by several hundred dollars per pupil.
In addition, charters receive no money for transportation and no money to build their physical facilities. It's remarkable that charter schools can overcome these significant financial challenges and still remain competitive, and it demonstrates that it is possible to educate students effectively with fewer dollars.
Charter advocates have rightly pointed out that the goal of charter schools has never been to supplant the traditional model. "The purpose for charter schools was to provide different options within the public setting," said Julie Adamic, the principal of charter school John Hancock Academy in Pleasant Grove. "We didn't necessarily say we were going to be better than the traditional elementary school or junior high or high school. We said we were going to meet the needs of students that didn't necessarily fit there."
The school grades make it clear that this is precisely what is happening in Utah's charter schools today. They have been part of a bold experiment that, so far, seems to be working well. Traditional schools ought to take note.