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More and more students are attending charter schools in Utah with skyrocketing enrollment over the past decade: from 1,526 students in 2002 to a peak of 50,785 youngsters this school year.

And although the state no longer caps enrollment, charter advocates point to a sort of funding ceiling limiting charter growth: 5,000 to 7,000 students per year, according to recent State Board of Education data.

Chris Bleak, president of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, said there are still waiting lists at many charter schools, with anxious parents and students holding out for a spot at a nontraditional public school where they hope different educational opportunities await them.

"We certainly want to see enrollment meet the demand," Bleak said. "It doesn't right now, but it comes pretty close."

Each year, the State Charter School Board receives twice as many applications to open new charter schools as are eventually approved, officials said. There's also a lengthy application process, where new charter operators usually have to apply 18 months before opening their doors to students.

Kim Frank, executive director of the Utah Charter Network, said the Utah charter system came about in response to problems in more unregulated states such as Florida.

Nationally, about 12 percent of all charter schools that have opened in the past two decades have shut down, according to the National Resource Center on Charter School Finance & Governance. In Florida, the failure rate was double.

Utah experts say those charter problems, both financial and academic, have largely been avoided in the Beehive State because charter school authorizers have been stricter.

"Charters want to grow reasonably, fiscally responsibly with high-quality instruction," said Frank of the Utah Charter Network, a nonprofit that offers advocacy, training and networking for charter schools. "We've found that somewhere in the neighborhood of 6,000 to 7,000 students accomplishes these goals."

Although there's no official cap on charter enrollment, officials said the state's funding allows for only so many schools. All Utah students provide their schools with what's called a Weighted Pupil Unit (WPU), which for the 2012-13 school year amounted to $2,848 per student. And charters receive additional money, what's called Local Replacement Funding (LRF), of $1,673 in lieu of local property taxes for facilities, supplies, etc. That LRF pot is only so big each year and usually can accommodate around 6,000 charter students.

Even so, charters taught an uptick of 8.4 percent of all K-12 students in Utah this year, or nearly twice as many as the national average of 4.5 percent. If not for the funding cap, charter experts said there would likely be many more than the current 88 operational charter schools in Utah.

"Utah's public charter schools continue to be in significant demand as an option for Utah's students and parents," Frank said.

Charters are public schools but have more leeway in how they hire staff or design curriculum than traditional public schools. For that reason, many charter schools have been able to explore new academic territory. Films about the education movement such as "Waiting for Superman" and "The Lottery" helped spark the debate over the merits of the independent schools and how they have changed American education.

Utah's charter system allowed for eight new schools to open this 2012-13 school year, including the Entheos Academy, Magna campus. The new school follows the same hands-on, exploratory curriculum of the first Entheos Academy, Kearns campus.

The Magna school opened in August with more than 475 students and now has a waiting list of 400, said Magna Director Kevin D. Baron. He added parents clearly want certain charters or there wouldn't be so many students on waiting lists.

An increasing number of Utah families, even those whose children remain in more traditional schools, are seeking educational choices, said Sam Payne, director of the new Pioneer High School for the Performing Arts, a charter school that operates in American Fork and Lehi. The school offers students performing arts instruction along with an online curriculum students can plug into from any computer.

"More parents tailor education to their own children's needs," Payne said.

"Students are getting very real, hands-on practical experience here. They attend performing arts classes in the morning and in the afternoon work at computers [on the core classes]."

Mekall Ryan, 17, a senior, wants to become a professional dancer. The South Jordan teen begins at Pioneer at 8:10 a.m. with ballet class, then on to either singing/theater instruction, which alternates with jazz/tap. In the afternoon, she heads into the school's computer lab where she takes online classes in classical mythology, physics and pre-calculus, among others.

"I really liked this aspect of what Pioneer was providing," said Ryan, who last year attended Bingham High School. "Here it's more of a technique class. This is teaching more how to move your body in certain ways and improve in things to know if you were going to an audition."

For Ryan and the other 5,893 new charter students this year, the system seems to be working.

Bleak, of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, said, "I think right now you have a pretty good equilibrium, so parents have choice and [the state is] making sure that schools can be successful. I don't anticipate any significant changes."

Twitter: @rayutah Charters approved to open 2012-13

Aristotle Academy

Where • Alpine School District, American Fork

Grades • K-8

Students (estimated) • 540

HighMark Charter School

Where • Davis School District, South Weber

Grades • K-9

Students • 695

Pacific Heritage Academy

Where • Salt Lake City School District

Grades • K-8

Students • 450

Promontory School of Expeditionary Learning (formerly North Peak Academy)

Where • Box Elder School District, Perry

Grades • K-9

Students • 500

Valley Academy

Where • Washington School District, Hurricane

Grades • K-7

Students • 450

Entheos Academy-Magna

Where • Granite School District, Kearns

Grades • K-9

Students • 500

Pioneer High School for the Performing Arts

Where • Alpine School District, American Fork/Lehi

Grades • 9-12

Students • 1,000

Source • Utah State Office of Education Charters approved to open in 2013-14

American Preparatory Academy Satellite Campus

Where• Salt Lake City

Grades• K – 9

Students• 975

Utah International Charter School

Where• Salt Lake City

Grades• 7-10

Students• 320

Esperanza Elementary

Where• West Valley City

Grades• K – 6

Students• 390

Leadership Learning Academy

Where• Clinton

Grades• K-6

Students• 567

Salt Lake Charter School

Where• Taylorsville

Grades• K – 12

Students• 650

Voyage Academy

Where• Clinton

Grades• K – 6

Students• 525

Wasatch Institute of Technology

Where• Jordan School District, city to be determined

Grades• 9 – 10

Students• 320

Weber State University Charter Academy

Where• Weber State University, Ogden

Grades• Kindergarten

Students• 44

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