SALT LAKE CITY — With the number of students in Utah's charter schools growing steadily, a Utah legislator is considering a law that would allow educators to pursue new types of charter schools, rather than wait for them to be proposed.
Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, told the Education Interim Committee on Wednesday that he is considering legislation that would allow the State Charter School Board to seek out specific types of charter schools through a "request for proposal," or RFP, process. The board could then issue a call for a specific type of school, for example a single-gender charter, rather than wait for such a charter to be proposed by interested parties.
"There are many parents, and students, in fact, who think there would be value in a single-gender charter school," he said.
He also gave the example of a military charter school for high school students who intend to pursue a career in the armed services, or a school geared toward providing opportunities for at-risk students. Similar schools operate in the country but have not been proposed in Utah.
Typically, charter schools are created by individuals or groups who perceive a need for educational choice and innovation in a community. The founders then write the terms of their charter and submit the plan to the state board for approval.
Charter schools are independently managed but receive public funding on a per-pupil basis. Last week, the Utah State Office of Education released official student population numbers for fall 2012, which showed that charter school enrollment had grown to more than 50,000 students, or roughly 8 percent of the state's total public school population.
Stephenson said he wanted to give members of the committee notice that he was discussing potential legislation with interested parties. He also invited committee members to contact him with questions or input on empowering the State Charter School Board to issue an RFP for specific charters.
Stephenson also said there remained questions on the funding of university- or college-partnered charter schools that needed to be addressed by the Legislature. Recently, the Weber State Charter Academy was granted approval by the state, while a charter school created in partnership between the Davis School District and the Davis Applied Technology Center was delayed by the Utah College of Applied Technology governing board due to funding concerns.
"I'm hoping that the wishes of the folks in the Davis School District and the DATC can be honored, but I'm told by the folks at UCAT that they need greater clarity on how they provide that," Stephenson said.
Chris Bleak, president of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, said he was encouraged by the enthusiasm of Utah's lawmakers to provide incentives for new charters, as well as the growing numbers of Utah families who are served by the alternative schools.
"He wants to see specific, innovative schools," Bleak said of Stephenson. "I think ultimately it speaks to the choice that parents are looking for in education. Parents are looking for different options for different students."
Bleak said there is still some tension between charter schools and proponents of traditional education, as well as policy questions that need to be addressed. But he said some of the conflict has subsided over the years as charter schools continue to grow and prove themselves a viable educational option.
He said the number of students in charter schools is expected to approach 57,000 next year with the addition of new schools. If looked at as a single group of schools, he said, charters would constitute one of Utah's largest school districts.
"There is probably a point at which charter schools would be cannibalizing each other," he said, "but as long as there's innovation and new ideas, I think there is foreseeable growth for a number of years."
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