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Charter Schools Reach Crossroads in U.S.

Staff reporter

Since the first charter school law was passed in 1991 in Minnesota, more than 2,500 schools have popped up around the nation in 37 states. Currently, more than 500,000 students in the United States attend charter schools.

In Carbon County, the 4-year-old Pinnacle Canyon Academy has 240 traditional students in kindergarten through grade eight and 40 preschoolers studying in a combination of an old private school building and relocatable classrooms located south of Carbon Country Club.

Nationally, charter schools have had an impact on the regular public school system. In some cases, charter schools have been a success. In other cases, they have been failures. Some have prompted regular public schools to bring on new programs and others have negatively impacted district budgets.

Charter schools have been created in different ways and have been over seen by a variety of organizations. These schools also have a number of diverse philosophies, as well as educational focuses.

While none of the individual operations have a specific path to success, there are several characteristics that seem to be exhibited in the schools that have succeeded.

According to the Charter Resource Center of Texas, schools that succeed usually have strong governing structures, a rigorous curriculum and a stable faculty as well as staff members that do not change from year to year. The charters also often have extended day schedules and/or after school programs, strong site-based governance and financial accountability.

While charters in many areas have flourished, the verdict on how the schools are performing is still out on a national level. That's primarily because is difficult to compare a school in Minnesota with one in Utah due to differences in funding and operations. Charter schools may also have varied emphasis. For instance, one school may stress academics, while another may take a technical or artistic track.

The situation frequently leads to criticism from people who feel the schools have not lived up to charter promises.

"Charters have created a more knowledgeable education for the consumer," points out Kathleen Dalen of the Learning Exchange, an education consulting firm in Kansas City, Mo. "It makes for a more discerning parent that holds schools accountable for their actions."

However, the National Education Association believes that accountability for meeting high academic standards is an important part of a successful school.

Because not all states have strong laws requiring charter schools to develop programs that conform to specific academic standards, the truth of institutions' success is elusive.

One of the differences between public education and charter schools is however that the newer type of educational institution has a definite failure rate; some have closed their doors.

That of course is because they really are experimental and prone to closure, where as public schools never close for performance reasons.

The regular public schools that do close are often shut down for reasons of poor resources or buildings that are old and replaced with new facilities or in districts that are declining in enrollment.

In the last 10 years a total of 2874 charter schools have opened in the United States.

Of that number, 194 have closed their doors for various reasons, including lack of money, mismanagement and for not living up to academic standards that the state in which they are located has set for them.

Another difference between charters and public schools on a national level is that they are often funded differently.

In some cases the money to run charters comes directly from the school district in which they are located, while in other cases the money is specially earmarked just for the charter school movement.

One of the types of funding that charter schools seldom get is dollars directly appropriated for funding their buildings or facilities.

Charter schools have begun operations in such buildings that range from old warehouses to unused motel rooms.

Successful charters often move from those early beginnings to former private or public school facilities and some have now begun to build their own buildings, designed with their exact needs in mind.

That has begun to happen in Utah where the schools are becoming more stable and have a record of success.

Pinnacle Canyon Academy in Helper is looking to do something along that vein in the next couple of years.

"We are looking at many alternatives as our enrollment expands," says Roberta Hardy, the local schools administrator. "There are some chances for existing buildings and I also recently met with an architect that specializes in building charter schools and I liked what I saw for the money we project we could spend."

Hardy points out that other alternatives are also being considered as well.

As charter schools exhibit more influence on communities and they continue to grow in number (a group in Grand County recently submitted an application to put one together in Moab) the truth is that charter schools are still a bone of contention in many areas of the country.

And that is just as true in Utah, where educational quality has always been held in high regard.

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