Study: Majority of U.S. charter schools perform equal or worse than traditional schools
In Utah, charter schools accounted for 8 percent of Utah's public school enrollment during the 2012-13 school year. Last fall, total charter enrollment exceeded 50,000 students for the first time after a 13.2 percent jump in enrollment over 2011.
That growth is expected to continue with the scheduled opening of eight new charter schools this fall with a combined capacity of 3,800 students, according to data from the Utah State Office of Education.
Chris Bleak, president of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, had not yet seen the study as of press time Monday and could not comment on its specifics but said he was happy to hear that charter schools had shown overall improvement.
Bleak said a charter school that performs equal to or even behind its school district counterpart should not necessarily be closed as there may be unique nonacademic features to a school that parents value.
He also said that since enrollment at a charter school is optional, whether a school closes or remains open is determined by the market demand of students attending that school, unlike traditional schools that are charged with the education of all children within their boundaries.
Bleak said that kind of market competition forces charter schools to innovate and improve or face extinction due to lack of students.
"I think that’s a powerful concept," he said. "It’s why, ultimately, I like to see the money follow the kid, because I think children should have choice and there’s value in providing different educational opportunities for different kids."
Bleak also said he was encouraged by recent actions by the State Charter School Board aimed at increasing the accountability of charter schools, as well as new statewide school grading that will lead to greater transparency on school performance.
"I’m all for them holding schools accountable to the performance they say they will get," he said. "If a school doesn’t do as well over a sustained period of time, you need to look at why that school is not doing as well as its counterparts, and that includes charter schools."
Empowered by choice
Judi Clark, executive director of Parents for Choice in Education, said the continued growth of charter school education, as well as the thousands of Utah families currently on waiting lists to enroll their students, is a clear indication that the alternative schools have something to offer.
"I think the demand for charter schools, more than a decade later, really testifies to how important choice is for Utah parents," she said. "Choice is a funny thing. Once people have it, once they are empowered by that opportunity, it does continue to grow."
On race and demographics, Clark said that while Utah's charter schools may not be the most racially diverse — less than 1 percent of Utah's charter school students are black, according to the CREDO study — schools are still finding ways to individualize education for students who come from a variety of economic and academic backgrounds.
"We look differently than other states, but our charter school community is serving the diverse needs of our population here," she said. "Our charter schools are not just serving our most advantaged populations. They are reaching down into every aspect of the community and they are making a difference."
Clark also responded to Utah's relatively low marks in the CREDO report. She said choice empowers parents to seek out the best educational opportunity for their children, and the growing popularity of charter schooling is evidence that Utah's parents continue to see a value.
"Obviously, our parents are seeing something different between their neighborhood school and their charter school, and they're dissatisfied with their neighborhood option," she said.
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