When Utah’s first charter school opened its doors in 1999, its future, along with a handful of other charters that opened within the next few years, was very much in doubt. The educational establishment was fiercely critical of this new movement, and some predicted that charter schools were little more than a fad that would fade away in a short period of time.
Well, that was then, and this is now. Charter schools currently are experiencing a huge groundswell of support. There are 109 charters in operation across the state, with a dozen more scheduled to open their doors in the next two years. Student growth in the state rose 1.5 percent, but charter enrollment has surged 11 percent over the same time period. Clearly, parents and students now recognize them as a viable alternative to traditional public schools, and that’s an encouraging sign.
Of course, parental interest isn’t the only standard by which these schools are measured. Some insist that charter schools are unnecessary at best and an unwelcome diversion of taxpayer resources at worst. Studies have been conducted to determine the academic success of charter schools, and the numbers suggest that there really isn’t a vast difference between the performance of charter students versus that of those who attend their neighborhood schools.
Such statistics provide valuable information. But those statistics don’t tell the whole story.
The enrollment numbers in charter schools, along with the long waiting lists of those who are trying to get in, are indicative of the high level of satisfaction among those who attend them. It has been historically true that many who go to their neighborhood schools have done so primarily out of inertia. Put simply, kids didn’t have any other choice. Consequently, it’s much easier to maintain high enrollment numbers if there are no other options.
Those days are long gone, and the educational landscape has irrevocably changed. Nobody who attends a charter school is compelled to be there. The charter schools themselves are keenly aware of this new reality, and the onus is on them to provide an educational experience sufficient to attract students. At the same time, traditional schools are no longer able to take their students for granted. All of this redounds to the students’ benefit.
That’s not to say that competition has cured everything that ails our public schools, nor is it a suggestion that the charter movement doesn’t still face a number of challenges going forward. However, the fact that so many willingly embrace charter schools is a solid indication that they must be doing something right.