Utah espouses two fundamental educational principles: First, Article X, Section 1 of the Utah Constitution provides that all Utah children are entitled to a free public education. Second, the Utah Supreme Court has made it clear that parents are responsible for their children’s education in Re J.P.,648 P.2d 1364, 1372 (Utah 1982). There are some in the education community that may believe these two principles are in conflict, but they are not. The answer which bridges the chasm between mandatory public education and parental rights is school choice.
The ability of parents to decide where and how to educate their children has always been of utmost importance to Utahns. The 1850s saw elementary schools organized by ward houses with a board of trustees appointed by the local bishop to run them. These schools were both religious and secular. They were also supported by local property taxes, a relatively little known fact. By 1869, these schools had evolved into local public school districts, which also included a private secondary school system administered by the LDS Church. In 1890, six years before statehood, the Utah Territorial Legislature enacted the “Free Public School Act.”
In 1933, the LDS Church discontinued its private secondary school system and encouraged Church members to attend the local public schools. Those public schools allowed for release time for students to attend seminary. Although there were still some parochial schools around, without the LDS Church they were few and far between. By the 1990s Utah had the lowest percentage of private schools anywhere in the United States. The vacuum left by the LDS Church was never really filled. School choice was hamstrung. With the advent of the Homeschooling movement, more choice was interjected into the Utah school system, but it still did not fill the vacuum. It wasn’t until 1998 that a solution to this vacuum came in the form of the “Utah Charter Schools Act.” The first charter school was opened in the fall of 1999. Today, there are 72 charter schools with over 40,000 students.
So why is school choice so important? First, it respects the parental role in the upbringing of children; it allows for parental involvement. Second, it fosters competition. When schools compete, innovation is the result. In sum, it fosters experimentation and creativity in the instruction of our children. Third, it embodies the notion that “one size does not fit all.” Children are not widgets; each is unique. School choice recognizes that uniqueness and allows for flexibility.
This is not to say that traditional public schools are failing because in most cases, they are not. It does go to show, however, that allowing for a menu of educational choices provides an openness that forces everyone to do better. How much better? In Illinois, seven out of the top ten schools in ACT performance were charter schools. Charter school students in Illinois scored on average 0.5 higher in their ACT composite score and there was an 11 percent higher chance for a charter school student to attend college over traditional school students. Other studies have shown comparable trends. In Utah, charter schools generally outperform traditional public schools in AYP by a count of 95.5 percent passage rate to 83.2 percent. Recently, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools ranked Utah tenth in the nation for 2010.
But there is a problem with Utah charter schools: Funding. While Utah charter schools, which are public schools, do receive WPU (weighted pupil unit) funding, they do not have the same revenue resources as traditional public schools; namely, property tax.
It is generally through the property tax that schools fund their facilities. Charter schools do not have that independent funding source. Instead, charter schools must rely upon the largess of the Utah Legislature. Each year, the Legislature funds what is called the “Local Replacement.” It is used to replace property taxes for charter schools. In reality, however, it is a poor substitute and one that is subject to much infighting because the Legislature requires that traditional public schools share a portion of their property taxes with charter schools. It is essential for our charter schools to grow, but they cannot without a stable funding source for capital improvements.
One solution would be to impose a statewide charter school property tax, but this has been met with opposition in the Utah Legislature. Hence, the problem continues to fester. But it is a problem worth solving and and as an educational community, we should be solving it. For charter schools are not the enemy, they are us.