by Howard Stephenson
Utah has only 19 charter schools, which are small independent public schools each with a unique educational focus. By contrast, Arizona has over 400 charter schools. State and local boards of education in Utah are more and more opposed to the charter school concept and are showing hostility toward these competitive new schools. The Alpine School Board has openly stated that it will not approve any charter applications brought before it. The State School Board says it wishes local boards would do all of the chartering because they don’t feel comfortable being the chartering organization.
Now, a recent report from The Utah Foundation incorrectly claims that school districts are financially harmed by charter schools.
Mike Jerman, Vice President of the Utah Taxpayers Association and Royce Van Tassell, Executive Director of Education Excellence Utah have issued a joint response, critical of the Utah Foundation study.
Jerman and Van Tassell admit the Foundation’s report contains a thorough analysis of charter school history and funding, but they say the Foundation’s claim that charter schools adversely impact the finances of local school districts is based on “. . . generalizations, worst case scenarios, and statistical anomalies.”
The Foundation’s report is based on the assumption that charter schools take students, and hence dollars, away from public schools in low-growth areas without relieving them of any costs because too few students are attracted to charter schools to allow school districts to significantly cut costs. This claims basically parrots what school boards have been claiming for years: we don’t reduce costs by losing one student. This argument has several flaws, according to Jerman and Van Tassell.
First, school districts and the Utah Foundation are trying to have it both ways. School districts claim that costs cannot be reduced until twenty five students from a single grade at a given school are diverted to a charter school. At the same time, districts insist that additional funding is needed whenever district enrollment increases by one student, not when twenty-five additional students in one grade at one school are newly enrolled.
Similarly, the Foundation’s analysis fails to acknowledge that school districts manage changes in their student population on a regular basis. The shift from east to west of the Salt Lake valley’s student population presents the same challenge as charter schools. Some schools have fewer students, while their costs remain the same. Rather than fretting about the changing student population, school districts shift the boundaries of each school, thereby balancing the costs of teachers, staff and facilities with the revenue provided by students attending the school. There is no reason school districts can’t respond in the same way when charter schools alter the demographics of a school.
Jerman and Van Tassell say the Foundation’s claim that charter schools divert too few students from traditional public schools ignores the growing popularity of charter schools. Charter schools are a very recent innovation in Utah yet more than three thousand students are enrolled in Utah charter schools and the waiting list, currently at two thousand students, continues to grow as new charter schools are opened. Clearly, charter school enrollment growth will divert enough students from existing schools to allow districts to reduce instructional costs.
Proponents of education reform have long argued that charter schools and tuition tax credits will not harm existing public schools because Utah’s school age population is growing rapidly. Since school districts would have to hire additional teachers and build additional school buildings to accommodate this enrollment growth, diverting enrollment growth to charter schools and private schools would not impact school districts’ fixed costs.
In an attempt to refute this claim, the Foundation states that charter schools rarely take students from high-growth areas, a claim that is not supported by the facts. As evidence for this claim, the Foundation points to the Timpanogos Academy and the John Hancock school, two charter schools in the Alpine School District. However, the Foundation openly admits that their analysis ignores the experience of other districts.
Mr. Jerman and Mr. Van Tassell point out that to extrapolate from the experience of one district to that of all districts, as the Foundation claim requires, is not statistically sound. The two say no defensible reason is given as to why charter schools, either in the present or more importantly in future years, will take students only from non-growth areas.
Moreover, they say, the data point in a very different direction. The Alpine School District is divided into seven high school districts. Of these seven districts, four districts are all growing, and these four districts comprise 78 percent of the student body at the John Hancock school. The American Preparatory Academy (APA), a charter school in Draper, is located in one of the fastest growing areas in the Jordan School District. Tuacahn, a charter school focusing on the performing arts, is located in fast-growing Washington County.
According to Jerman and Van Tassell, the most disturbing element of the “charter schools harm traditional public schools” claim is how much it ignores research on charter schools. A recent study by Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby found that traditional public schools who lose 6 percent of their student body to charter school actually improve their students’ test scores. Moreover, these improved test scores come at a lower cost than public schools who don’t enjoy significant competition from charter schools. Research from the Manhattan Institute verifies that the healthy dose of competition charter schools provide actually benefits traditional public schools.
Jerman and Van Tassell say they are are confident that Utah policy makers will realize that the claims made by school districts and the Utah Foundation are unrealistically pessimistic. Charter schools cost taxpayers less per student than traditional public schools. With nearly two thousand students waiting to attend Utah’s charter schools, and with that waiting list growing when a new charter school opens, it seems clear that Utah needs more, not less parental choice. Charter schools can and should be an important component in our pursuit of meaningful parental choice for every Utah family.
The complete Utah Foundation report on charter schools can be found on the web at www.utahfoundation.org .