Friday the State Board of Education gave final approval for seven new charter schools and the expansion of nine existing schools to the tune of 6,400 students.

Last month the State Charter Board signed off on the new charter schools, which include programs with emphases in things like history, performing arts and refugee education. The schools are set to open in the 2009-10 school year.

Of the nine expansion sites that were up for approval, some state school board members questioned whether the Utah Virtual Academy should be allowed to expand since there are already existing online education programs in Utah, including the Electronic High School, one of the biggest online high school programs in the nation.

"Do we want multiple electronic schools in operation?" asked Tom Gregory, state board member. "There are several reasons to do a virtual school. Fiscally it can be less than the cost of a brick-and-mortar school. Those savings are most pronounced the more students they serve."

"While there is value in it, there also is value in consolidation, and I would like to know what services beyond the traditional virtual offerings are they providing," Gregory said.

But other board members said multiple formats of such a relatively new type of program will lead to improvement of services and room to learn and grow.

"It's good that we bring on some others — not just for competition but to try our different options," said board member Mark Cluff.

Charters are free public schools open to all students. Most charters have a specific focus, and enrollment in the schools is subject to lottery if too many students apply for a given school.

This year the Utah Legislature allowed the charter board to approve slots for up to 6,700 new students for the 2009 school year, though there were requests for about 10,000. The charter board whittled down that number last month.

Charter leaders say that due to an increasingly competitive application process, they are stronger applications for more innovative and unique charters that are serving both under-served and rural populations

Next fall, 67 Utah charter schools will be in operation serving about 28,000 students.

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