Report: Utah ranks 11th in U.S. for charter school policy

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 23 2013 6:55 p.m. MST

Qadas Jaafar, left, and Kristina Arnold listen as students participate in a biology class at City Academy on Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2013, in Salt Lake City. A recent evaluation gave Utah charter schools a B grade and ranked the state 11th in the country.

Tom Smart, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah charter school policy ranks 11th in the nation, scoring a B grade, according to the Center for Education Reform.

The center, which has been analyzing state charter school laws since 1996, also ranked Utah in the top 10 for online learning, parental choice, teacher quality and transparency in the latest evaluation of charter education

"Utah is a leader when it comes to hitting those hot-button issues that empower parents to be in the driver's seat of their children's education," said Kara Kerwin, director of external affairs at the Center for Education Reform, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C.

The state's transparency is exemplary, Kerwin said.

"Utah's website is parent-friendly and accessible, containing easy-to-understand data," she said.

Another critical piece, Kerwin said, is the election of local school boards.

"Held during the general elections in November, parents have the convenience, as well as the power, to make decisions about who runs their schools," she said.

"Utah's charter school law is considered strong because it provides equitable funding to charter schools, facilities funding and a strong authorizing system that includes capable independent bodies such as universities and the semi-independent state charter board," according to the center's website.

Utah ranked high in school choice, as well. "Utah has one private school choice program (special-needs vouchers). The state does have a charter school law. Utah allows for limited public virtual schooling. Open enrollment exists, both for intra-district and inter-district public school choice," the website said. 

According to the website, Utah has adopted "multiple student-centric policies designed specifically to harness the power of technology." This is due, largely in part, to the passage of SB65 and the Statewide Online Education Program. 

Robert Ralphs, executive director of Alianza Academy in Salt Lake City, said state laws and policies allow charter schools to be flexible and encourage the creation of new models. For him, that means online learning. 

A hybrid school that combines traditional instruction with nearly three hours of online instruction, Alianza Academy is not the only model for digital learning. Four or five charter schools are modeling such techniques, and nearly every school is moving in that direction, Ralphs said.

"As an outsider who came into the charter school scene only three years ago, I applaud what the people in Utah who've been at it for 14 years have done," he said. "It's really quite remarkable. And it's served kids well."

But there is always room for improvement. Teacher evaluations could use some work, Kerwin said.

"Right now in Utah, eligibility for dismissal is not a consequence of unsatisfactory evaluations," she said. "Ineffective classroom performance is not grounds for dismissal. That's not right for our kids. Utah should be thinking about how to better evaluate schools, teachers and students."

But one consideration must be made, said Sonia Woodbury, director of City Academy, a Salt Lake City charter school.

"The charter school movement started about 20 years ago," Woodbury said. "So while it's good that we have people looking at our schools, we have to remember how relatively new this is, in a sense. There's no clear settling of how things are going to look."

In terms of state policy and law, Woodbury said she's been impressed by the Legislature's willingness to listen.

"Every year, legislators come out of session to speak with us on the hill," she said. "I attend meetings in small and large groups where I have a voice, and people are listening to us. They seem very accessible to me."

Of the 43 U.S. states with charter school laws, four states received an A, nine earned a B, 19 got a C, and 11 ranked in D or F categories.

E-mail: rlowry@desnews.com

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