Education • National group praises Utah for abundance of charter options, online learning.
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Utah ranks 11th in the nation when it comes to charter school programs, according to a new national study.
The Beehive State earned an overall "B" grade in charter education, according to the Center for Education Reform, a pro-charter Washington, D.C., nonprofit.
The group's latest evaluation of states' charter laws includes other categories deemed important for education reform: parental choice, online learning, teacher quality and transparency.
"These are the hot-button issues in education reform today," Jeanne Allen, the center's president, said Thursday. "We've been ranking charter schools for 14 years."
Still, there is one area the group does not specifically look at that's of interest in Utah: graduation rates.
Recently, Utah education officials looked at charter high school graduation rates, which ranked among the highest and lowest in the state: from 27 percent to 100 percent. The overall state graduation rate is 78 percent.
State officials said charter schools need to do a better job of tracking students if they leave the school before graduating. The students could have graduated at another school, but were posted as not graduating from their charter schools.
Allen said the same problem exists on a national level.
"We don't have a level playing field as far as data," Allen said. "Are charter schools doing poorly because they're doing poorly or because of the [inadequate] data?"
The center has studied and evaluated each state's charter school laws since 1996.
In its latest evaluation, the center had mostly positive comments about Utah in four of its five categories.
Under "charter schools," center officials wrote of the state on its website: "Utah's charter school law is considered strong because it provides equitable funding to charter schools, facilities funding and a strong authorizing system that includes capable independent bodies such as universities and the semi-independent state charter board."
As for "school choice," center officials wrote: "Utah has one private school choice program [special-needs vouchers]. The state does have a charter school law. Utah allows for limited public virtual schooling. Open enrollment exists, both for intradistrict and interdistrict public school choice."
The group praised the state's online learning: "Due in large part to the leadership of the Utah Legislature, Utah has adopted multiple student-centric policies designed specifically to harness the power of technology.
Primarily through the passage of SB65, the Statewide Online Education Program, and charter policy enacted over the last decade, digital learning has become available in some form to all Utah students."
Its "transparency" also was praised: "Utah has a very parent-friendly website that provides easy to understand school report cards as well as information on the Carson Smith Special Needs Scholarship and charter schools. The 40 local school boards in Utah are elected during the November general election."
But when it comes to "teacher evaluations," the group said Utah has some work to do. "Neither tenure decisions nor license advancement and renewal are based on effectiveness," the group wrote. "Eligibility for dismissal is not a consequence of multiple unsatisfactory evaluations in Utah, and ineffective classroom performance is not a ground for dismissal. The state does not ensure that the appeals process for dismissed teachers is expedient; however, a last hired, first fired policy is prohibited during layoffs."
Among the nation's 43 states with charter school laws, the center ranked them as follows: four states earned an "A," nine got a "B," 19 received a "C" and 11 states were given a "D" or "F."
Allen said it's not only charter school laws but the other four categories that make for education reform.
"As policymakers consider changes to their charter school laws, they also need to be mindful of what it takes to have truly great education reform policies across all issues," Allen said.
The center's 2013 Charter School Laws Across the States Ranking & Scorecard can be found at Edreform.com/in-the-states, which will be available to the public Tuesday.
"Charter and traditional schools don't have to be on opposite sides anymore," said Kim Frank, of the Utah Charter Network. "The main reason to see charter schools in Utah grow is you have smaller schools. And with new and innovative programs, that information can be shared with all schools, and all ships rise."
Power to Utah parents
In a previous study, the Center for Education Reform created what it calls the "Parent Power Index," which "measures the ability in each state of a parent to exercise choices no matter what their income or child's level of academic achievement engage with their local school and board, and have a voice in the systems that surround their child."
The center ranked these locations as the top 10 in its "parent power index," according to its website.
1 • Indiana (84%)
2 • Florida (83%)
3 • Ohio (79%)
4 • Arizona (78%)
5 • Washington, D.C. (77%)
6 • Louisiana (76%)
7 • Pennsylvania (75.5%)
8 • Utah (75%)
9 • Minnesota (74.5%)
10 • Wisconsin (74%)