All these schools are doing different things. Kids are doing amazing things at all schools, but what’s really unique about charters is they understand their mission. —Chris Bleak, president of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools
SALT LAKE CITY — When high school senior Alexandria Northrup graduates this spring, she'll do so with 12 credits from the University of Utah.
Northrup is enrolled in two courses at the U., writing and humanities, and she takes them for free while simultaneously completing her high school coursework at the Academy for Math Engineering and Science, or AMES, an early college charter school in Murray.
"I really like the community at AMES," Northrup said. "It's like we're a family. We all support each other in different ways."
Northrup and her AMES classmates were among the student representatives from 35 charter schools that filled the Capitol rotunda Monday. The event gave lawmakers a chance to see the innovation taking place at Utah's alternative public schools, from online- and technology-driven education to learning that incorporates outdoor expeditions into the curriculum and schools that focus on students on the autism spectrum.
"All these schools are doing different things," said Chris Bleak, president of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools. "Kids are doing amazing things at all schools, but what’s really unique about charters is they understand their mission."
Bleak said having students and their teachers at the Capitol during the session helps convey the impact of the decisions made by lawmakers. He said education policy is a frequent topic in Utah politics, but it's important to remember that those debates affect Utah's children.
"We have adults making adult decisions, which needs to happen, but we forget what the impact is on the children," Bleak said. "So this is a good reminder how public education, and charter schools specifically, are really benefiting our kids."
Charter school enrollment now accounts for nearly 9 percent of the state's total public education student body. Last year, the number of charter school students grew by 8.2 percent, or 4,099 students, far surpassing the 2 percent overall rate of growth for Utah's public schools.
In a coincidental turn, committee hearings were held Monday morning on several pieces of legislation that would affect charter schools. While students and their teachers were preparing in the rotunda, lawmakers were debating proposals to equalize funding between charter schools and their traditional counterparts, as well as mitigate overcrowding through the creation of new charters.
"We have such a desperate need for alternatives like these charter schools offer, and we can’t meet the need," said Sen. Mark Madsen, R-Saratoga Springs.
SB218, sponsored by Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, would give priority to the authorization of charter schools in the state's high-growth areas.
Presenting the bill Monday, Stephenson referred to the recent $500 million bond proposal in Jordan School District that failed to gain voter support. The bond was intended to construct new school buildings to alleviate overcrowding, which Stephenson said could have been mitigated by the opening of charter schools in the area.
"I believe this will make better use of taxpayer dollars and will assist those high-growth areas in taking care of much of the student growth that occurs," Stephenson said.
But Kayleen Whitelock, a member of the Jordan Board of Education, said charter schools are intended to be laboratories of innovation, not a mechanism for absorbing seat space.
"I want them to be innovative and creative," Whitelock said. "I don’t want them to take the place of our public schools."
Bleak said he and his colleagues initially struggled with Stephenson's bill. He said he recognizes the need to address growth in the state, but the priority of any charter school be to meet the educational needs of students.
"We want to make sure that charter school applications are high-quality, that they’re innovative, and that they meet the needs and demands of our citizens," Bleak said.
Stephenson has also sponsored legislation that would increase the amount of school district property taxes allocated to charter schools. He said the current system, where a proportionately smaller amount of per-student district funding follows a student to a charter school, is flawed and is calling for charter funding levels to be raised over the course of several years.
But Sen. Pat Jones, D-Holladay, expressed concern that by diverting more district funds to charter schools, school districts would in turn be pressured to raise taxes to maintain funding levels.
Stephenson said the difference in funding at the district level would vary depending on the number of students in charter schools.
"I don’t know what a local school district would do, but it could put pressure on property tax," he said.
Both bills were advanced by the Senate Education Committee. They will now go before the full Senate for debate.