SALT LAKE CITY — This past week, hundreds of thousands of Utah children returned to school.
Most, like Kristen Evans’ elementary school-age sons, go to district schools.
Evans, who is chairwoman of Woodstock Elementary School’s community council, said she is committed to her neighborhood school because it serves all students, and she believes her children benefit from a public school population that is economically and ethnically diverse.
“I’m a huge proponent of the neighborhood school. If we as a community lift everybody up, then as a community, we will be better,” she said.
Evans said she likes that her sons have friends in their neighborhood, and as a family, they feel more connected to their neighborhood because of connections built through their involvement with their Granite District school in Murray.
Evans’ sister is a public school teacher, and she and her husband are products of public schools, she said.
“It’s a big deal to me,” she said.
But increasingly, Utah parents are making “nontraditional” choices for their children’s education.
Royce Van Tassell, executive director of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, said public charter school enrollment at the state’s 135 charter schools is expected to exceed 80,000 students this fall.
That means Utah students who attend public charter schools collectively outnumber the enrollment of the state’s largest school district, which is Alpine School District in Utah County.
That’s a far cry from the seven charter schools the Utah Legislature authorized on a pilot basis in the late 1990s that served just a few hundred students.
Not only have charter schools increased in number, they offer a wide array of options of programs, such as academies that specialize in math, science and engineering; performing arts; serving students students with high functioning autism; and even military academies for students in grades 7-12.
“We continue to grow and parents are thrilled with the rich set of options Utah has embraced as part of its education system,” Van Tassell said.
According to the Utah State Charter School Board 2018 annual report, “Demand for alternative and innovative educational opportunities outpaces the supply in many areas and thousands of students are wait-listed statewide every year.”
Van Tassell said he has one neighbor whose children are in multiple education settings — some in district schools, others in public charter schools, and still others, home-schooled.
“They’re looking for something a little bit different because that’s what each child needs,” he said.
Kim Frank, executive director of the Utah Charter Network, told state lawmakers this past week that a higher percentage of Utah parents send their children to charter schools than what’s seen nationally.
“Nationally, charters represent 6% of the students. In Utah, it’s almost 12%,” she said.
Not only has charter school enrollment grown exponentially, some charter schools in Utah are considered among the state’s best schools, she said.
Frank said Niche.com, which ranks K-12 schools, colleges and universities, neighborhoods, and workplaces, recently released rankings for Utah’s best K-12 schools.
“Charter schools were six of the top 10 elementary schools, eight of the top 10 high schools,” she said.
Sen. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, a public school teacher who specializes in educational technology, agrees that “there are some great charters out there doing great things.”
However, there are also nine charter schools in the school turnaround process, she said. Schools identified for turnaround status are chronically low performing. “Turnaround schools” must create plans to improve their academic performance. They are given additional resources to implement the plans and have three years to make progress before the Utah State Board of Education takes other action.
“The model was that (charter schools) were going to do it for less and do a better job. Now we have nine schools that are using turnaround funds, so that’s actually more than other schools,” Riebe said.
The first cohort of public schools identified for turnaround included 20 district schools and six charter schools. However, the second cohort included four charter schools and one district school, according to the 2018 School Turnaround Report.
Sister Catherine Kamphaus, associate superintendent of Utah Catholic Schools, said the growth of public charter schools, which are tuition free, has played a role in shrinking Catholic school enrollment.
Tuition costs have increased as the Utah Catholic schools have labored to keep class sizes low and pay competitive salaries to teachers.
Enrollment in Catholic schools is dropping nationwide, although decline in Utah has occurred at a slower pace, she said.
In the 2014-15 school year, enrollment was about 5,300 students, compared to 5,065 for the 2018-2019 school year.
In years past parents sought out Catholic education because it is faith based, but that has changed, Sister Kamphaus said. Now parents are primarily concerned about school safety and academic rigor.
“I think they feel it’s safer. Sometimes that’s more important to them. When we ask why they choose it, religion is not the first (reason), it’s maybe third or fourth. But safety, academics, those are the two highest,” she said.
Private schools have one distinct advantage over public schools with respect to safety, she said. If a student continually misbehaves or bullies other students “we can say ‘So long’ and (public schools) can’t do that,” she said.
Numbers of Utah children who are home schooled are also rising.
Utah State Board of Education data show more than 16,000 students were home-schooled during the 2015-16 school year, up from about 7,000 in the 2002-03 school year. Most home-schooled students — more than 9,500 — reside in the boundaries of Alpine, Davis, Jordan and Nebo school districts.
Erik Hanson, president of the Utah Home Education Association, said home schooling is on the rise for a variety of reasons.
“It’s the internet age. Anyone can learn anything online,” he said.
Others worry about bullying and school safety.
Mostly, it boils down to parents wanting more educational options for their children.
“A lot of people feel the public school system is far more focused on teaching to a test rather than ensuring people have understanding,” Hanson said.
Home schooling, meanwhile, is an individualized approach to education.
“The public school system can’t do that and will never be able to. It’s always a one-size-fits-all conveyer belt approach. Everything is standardized, yet children are not standardized. Everybody’s fingerprint is unique. Therefore, the way they learn, the things that work for each child is different. You just can’t do that in public school,” he said.
Utah laws also allow parents to enroll students in district schools for certain subjects and permits them to be home-schooled for others. This, too, helps meet students’ individual needs.
Hanson said the upswing in home schooling in Utah was also tied to Utah’s adoption of core standards and federal directives ordering schools to provide transgender students with access to suitable facilities — including bathrooms and locker rooms — that match their chosen gender identity, or risk the loss of federal funding.
Some parents viewed both as affronts to local control and states’ rights.
“I think people are figuring out (home schooling) is more advantageous,” he said.
Riebe says the vast majority of Utah parents continue to choose to send their children to their neighborhood schools, and she expects that to continue. According to U.S. Census data, there are more than 695,000 school-age children in Utah and nearly 660,000 were enrolled in public schools last fall in both district and charter schools.
Woodstock Elementary School parent Evans said she ran for the school community council because she believes in traditional public education and she wants to demonstrate to her boys that it’s important.
“If they can actually see ‘Mom’s in a meeting with the principal, she cares enough to add this to her plate, I should probably care a little bit, too,’ I think it’s been a positive experience for our family,” Evans said.