"Let's find out what's working in charter schools," said Andrea Rorrer, director of the policy center based at the University of Utah. "Let's find out if they're effective and, if they are, how and why are they effective."
Utah's traditional public school districts and charter schools seem to tensely coexist, often with little or no communication between the two, the more than 200-page report on Utah charter schools states. Districts are not always aware of how unhappy parents are who leave to go to charter schools, institutions traditional public school officials may not think are necessary. Those parents are thrilled to have a choice and feel more involved in the decision-making at the charter school.
"And I think there's the perception sometimes that there's something devious about what charter schools are trying to do. And I don't understand that, because I think we all have the welfare of children in mind and at heart," a charter school administrator was quoted as saying in the report.
The new report on Utah's charter schools neither condemns nor endorses such schools, but examines the creation process, goals and accountability, among other points. The study is built on focus groups, interviews and surveys that included charter school parents and charter, district and state officials. Legislators will review it Tuesday.
The new report opens a window into who charter school parents are and how the traditional public school and charter officials view each other's missions. Nearly one-third of surveyed parents or guardians said they would prefer a private school, but could not afford it.
"This is an important acknowledgement, because many traditional public school supporters criticize charter schools for serving an elite population and often mistakenly refer to these schools as private ones," the report states.
A charter school's focus or mission along with smaller class sizes were some of the most frequently cited reasons parents or guardians chose to place a child in that school.
But charter schools' newness - most having existed only a handful of years - may be part of the reason district officials remain unconvinced.
"We need to let them stand the test of time for a bit," a local school board member was quoted as saying in the report. "And if they really are doing something innovative and wonderful, then by all means, share it with us. Let's all learn from it. But at this point, we're not seeing that."
The explosive growth in the number of charter schools led the Legislature to place a cap on the number of new charter schools. The majority of those interviewed for the study said there was "no magic number" of new charter schools permitted each year, but that permission should rest on application quality and funding.
If charter schools are going to exist and the number be expanded: "How do we do it in a way that's consistent with beliefs about public schools?" said Rorrer, from the policy center. "And how do we do that in a way that's not detrimental to the traditional public schools?" Equity concerns were mentioned by some of those interviewed, some suggesting charter schools were "less likely to open for students in schools that had not made [No Child Left Behind requirements] or to open in low-income neighborhoods."
The study states: "In many cases, the stratification was explained as an unfair system in which the charter schools are 'creaming' the best and brightest students from the regular public schools, leaving the rest of the students in the regular public schools."
While many legislators and charter school officials had yet to read the report as of Friday, Howard Headlee, founder of American Preparatory Academy in Draper, said he considered it "very important" - though, he, too, still needed to read the study.
"We are at a beginning of what could be a very important experiment in education, and we have to get this right," he said. "In my view, getting it right is providing all the accountability and fiscal responsibility without destroying the innovation and creativity."
* Reach JULIA LYON at jlyon @sltrib.com or 801-257-8748.
Read the report
To read the Utah Education Policy Center's report on charter schools, go to www.sltrib.com.