I read with interest Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh’s Deseret News op-ed regarding Utah’s public charter schools. While I can understand Gallagher-Fishbaugh’s eagerness to attempt to thwart the public charter school movement in Utah — as president of the Utah Education Association, she has every interest in defending the union dominated status quo in neighborhood public schools — I think a little fact-checking is in order.
First and most egregiously, Gallagher-Fishbaugh makes the stunning claim that public charter school enrollment for 2014 fell by more that 2 percent. But according to the state superintendent’s Annual Report on the Utah State Office of Education website, public charter school enrollment increased by 11.9 percent in 2014. The over 6,500 new charter school enrollees in 2014 accounted for nearly two-thirds of total statewide growth in Utah’s public schools, a number I can’t believe Gallagher-Fishbaugh did not know. Fall 2015 enrollment is projected to grow another 10 percent! Seventeen years into the Utah charter school “experiment,” demand for public charter schools as an alternative to neighborhood public schools is at an all time high.
Second, Gallagher-Fishbaugh claims that the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (NAPCS) concluded that Utah’s public charter schools are underperforming when compared to neighborhood public schools. This is a remarkable assertion given that NAPCS has never made such a claim. Not finding the referenced report online, I personally called the NAPCS, and they have no record of concluding any such thing, nor had they published research into Utah’s charter school performance. With Gallagher-Fishbaugh a professional educator with over 36 years of experience, I can’t imagine she would allow her students to get away with such an egregious fabrication (unless, of course, her op-ed was an exercise in creative writing, which, given its content, makes the most sense to me).
If you are concerned about how Utah’s public charter schools are performing, I refer you to a 2013 University of Utah study that demonstrates that public charter schools are not only outperforming their closest neighboring schools, but that competition from charter schools actually increases academic performance in those neighboring schools.
Finally, Gallagher-Fishbaugh’s declaration that no more charter schools should be authorized because of excess charter school capacity is both misleading and self-serving. While Utah public charter schools may be authorized to admit another 12,000 students, they do not have the capacity to do so. Many of Utah’s public charter schools would love to take more students and are authorized by the State Office of Education to do so, but are unable to access the requisite capital to expand their facilities or relocate to larger ones to accommodate new students. The “excess” capacity Gallagher-Fishbaugh references is mostly illusory.
But for the sake of argument, let’s assume that charter schools have existing capacity to handle another 12,000 students. Given the substantial demand and historical growth trends for public charter schools, such “excess” capacity would be absorbed within the next two years. Since it takes a minimum of two years for new public charter schools to get approved, organized and running, the Utah State Charter School Board should continue to authorize new charter schools, perhaps even at an accelerated pace.
I am a big fan of public charter schools and our neighborhood public schools. My wife and I have children in both. We deeply appreciate the excellent professional educators that work with our children every day. We are also grateful to be able to have multiple public education options to choose from, believing that more educational competition is good for the system. It is a shame Sharon Gallagher-Fishbaugh and the UEA do not feel the same way.
Dan Liljenquist is a former state senator and former U.S. Senate candidate.