Charter schools offer the kind of choices that Utah lawmakers say they want with vouchers. | News | Salt Lake City Weekly

Charter schools offer the kind of choices that Utah lawmakers say they want with vouchers. 

Small Lake City

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The Legislature is expanding its voucher program. There are 10,000 vouchers to be given out, but the demand is higher. Supporters call it proof that families are hungry for "educational options." But what is the real proof? Utah already has a robust system of school choice, allowing students to opt into any public school if there is room. The state also offers programs at more than 100 public charter schools.

Charters started in 1997 with a pilot of eight schools. There was no shortage of detractors, but the vision was to strengthen the school system by opening doors to innovation. The state school board was so sure charters would destroy public schools that they sued and lost. "When I was in the Legislature, the local school boards were utterly without vision," said former state Sen. Howard Stephenson, who sponsored the original charter bill.

It's been 20 years since I co-founded one of Salt Lake's first charters. Salt Lake Arts Academy was a shared vision of two principals and parents from Beacon Heights and Wasatch elementaries. The idea was to enhance the public system—not destroy it. The Legislature was cutting back on arts education—programs both schools were known for. Meanwhile, the school district had targeted the elementaries for closure. If that sounds similar, it is—Salt Lake's school population has long been declining, and buildings are expensive to maintain.

The district, however, was playing a numbers game. While both Beacon Heights and Wasatch were full, half of their students came from outside the district (for instance, parents who work at the university but live outside the city). To the school board, however, those schools were half full, marking them for closure. Arts Academy parents sought to become a district-sponsored charter, but the school board refused. That started the long and frustrating search for facilities.

As charters thrived, the district became more amenable to sponsorship. Take the Salt Lake Center for Science and Education on the west side. Its focus on STEM education has attracted students, as has the Open Classroom in the shuttered Lowell Elementary. The Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts did not fare so well. The state charter board has taken it over, has weighed new locations and is working on fixing its financial problems.

Salt Lake City is now facing the prospect of four empty elementary buildings. The district has not released plans for their use. And Rosslyn Heights Elementary, which closed in the early 2000s, could have housed a charter school but will be demolished and repurposed for high school sports.

If Salt Lake wants families to come back, it needs to not only look at housing prices, but also what it offers to school children. It should embrace charter schools and learn from the creative programs they offer.

Otherwise, they may be seeing students flee to a voucher system that lacks accountability and drains funds from the public system.

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About The Author

Katharine Biele

Katharine Biele

A City Weekly contributor since 1992, Katharine Biele is the informed voice behind our Hits & Misses column. When not writing, you can catch her working to empower voters and defend democracy alongside the League of Women Voters.

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