Charter schools in Utah increasingly are serving wealthy, white students and leaving poorer and minority children behind in traditional public schools, a Salt Lake Tribune analysis shows.
Although charter schools by law are open to every student because taxpayers fund them, in practice many educate only a narrow slice of the population. Some Utah school districts with high minority student populations are home to charter schools with significantly smaller percentages of ethnic minorities, and many of the newest charter schools will open this fall in affluent communities with little diversity.
Of 13 charter schools opening this fall along the Wasatch Front, 11 are in communities with median household incomes that exceed the state average, by as much as 58 percent. Plus, even charter schools in diverse communities often don't reflect the diversity that surrounds them.
The Tribune's analysis shows that in the 2005-06 school year, the Salt Lake City School District, where 52 percent of students are ethnic minorities, has charter schools in its boundaries with 21 percent and 18 percent minority populations. In the Ogden City School District, where half the students are minorities, charter schools have 28 percent and 15 percent minority populations.
When Latina artist Ruby Chacon, of Salt Lake City, decided to enroll her son in the Salt Lake Arts Academy, her family made a choice.
"We had to weigh whether we wanted him to be in a diverse school or we wanted to give him a more solid education," she said. "We figured we'd be able to compensate for the [lack of] diversity."
Lack of free transportation to charter schools, inadequate outreach to minority communities and the schools' locations in affluent neighborhoods are just a few of the barriers keeping minority students out of the schools, critics say. Parents who found charter schools are often white, and wealthy enough to pursue the monumental task of creating a new institution. Low-income parents may have neither the time nor the financial means to found their own schools.
"To get a charter is so difficult, and takes so much time and motivation, that it's tough to find people willing to do that," said John Broberg, state charter school director.
Government officials are aware of the homogenous nature of many charter schools.
"The Office for Civil Rights is becoming more concerned about schools that have a special mission like charters, like magnet schools, like international baccalaureate programs," said Richard Gomez, Utah State Office of Education coordinator of educational equity. "Those are all pretty exclusive unless they make an effort to reach out to a population that normally wouldn't be part of it."
Gomez doesn't accuse charter schools of deliberate exclusivity.
"But when you don't do certain things to be what I would call proactive . . . does it make it any less desirable, any [more] acceptable?"
When Jennifer Mayer-Glenn, a teacher at North Star Elementary in Salt Lake City, talks to Latino parents about alternative public schools, they often express surprise at what's available, she said.
Cultural divides can make it difficult for many minority families to understand how regular public schools work, Mayer-Glenn said. Discovering charter schools requires yet another step.
Although some existing and planned charter schools do actively recruit minorities, Latino activist Frank Cordova, of South Jordan, sees charter schools as a mechanism for white flight as the majority population leaves traditional public schools "to get away from the minority" population, he said. Julie Adamic, director of John Hancock Charter School in Pleasant Grove and a member of the Utah State Charter School Board, defends charter schools. She's heard radio spots, and seen newspaper ads and signs advertising charter schools.
It will take the drive of a parent or group to start charter schools in ethnically diverse communities, she said.
"We all pretty much reflect the demographics of our area," Adamic said. "It's not to say charter founders should go start schools that won't benefit them."
Once a parent discovers a charter school, the next hurdle can be simply securing one of the few coveted spots.
At John Hancock, the number of open spaces differs year to year, but older students' younger siblings, who receive enrollment preference, often take up many of those slots.
Last fall, 14 siblings took spots in the 20-student kindergarten class, opening up room for six new families, Adamic said. That doesn't sound like a lot, she said, but the school only has 90 families.
In addition to the siblings exception, charter schools may give enrollment preference under other limited conditions, perhaps providing opportunities to favor certain students.
The children of founding parents, plus a nominal number of people who donate substantial time or expertise to starting charter schools, are allowed preference, for example.
State rules say no more than 10 percent of a school's students can receive such preference, but Carol Lear, an attorney for the State Education Office, has seen instances when volunteers' children have made up more than 10 percent of charter schools' enrollments.
"It's hard for us to enforce the 10 percent rule, but we certainly try," Broberg said. "It comes down to what is the spirit of this law. It's all about getting people involved, not excluding other people."
Once students with legal enrollment preference are enrolled, charter schools must hold lotteries to fill other enrollment vacancies. But even these can be conducted strategically - by making sure "desirable" families are contacted and encouraged to participate.
Broberg knows of families that enroll an older child in an upper-grade class that doesn't require a lottery so that younger siblings will receive preference for lower grades and won't have to enter lotteries. Once the younger siblings are enrolled, the older child withdraws and returns to complete classes in traditional public schools. As a result, there are fewer openings for others in lower grades.
"We have a hard time proving that it is discriminatory," Lear said, "but as you see it take place, you see how it excludes various families. But I have to say there are some schools that do take all comers."
Disadvantaged students can be dissuaded from attending charter schools in other subtle ways. Charter schools are not required to serve lunch, and many don't, meaning lower-income families must give up free and reduced-price lunches and breakfasts served at traditional public schools.
Lear has received reports of schools skimping on special education and programs for English-language learners, or discouraging parents from requesting fee waivers for uniforms and other school expenses. Broberg said such practices are illegal but difficult to monitor. He wants to see greater access to charter schools for all Utah students and hopes a legislative study now under way will help.
"Should we raise the numbers of diverse students in charter schools? Yes," Broberg said. "Exactly how do we do that? I don't know. I don't have all the answers, but one is to make sure these schools are aware that diversity is one of their objectives."
State Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who backed legislation creating charter schools, said the schools are driven by the need for parental choice in public education. He doesn't know how to increase diversity in charter schools and isn't sure it is necessary.
"It may be that ethnic populations are being served well and may feel satisfied with their neighborhood schools," he said.
Like Stephenson, Scott Smith, Charter School Board chairman, believes parental choice should remain the paramount consideration.
Smith said his board provides support for parental choices but can't dictate an increase in charter school diversity. Concentrations of charter schools in certain areas indicate that parents are involved in their children's educations, he said.
"It comes down to the philosophy that we need to leave this open for parents to decide and not have a bureaucracy decide," Smith said.
What is a charter school?
l Charter schools are public schools started by parents or other groups. They receive public funds and are supervised by the state. Most operate independently from school districts.
l Under federal law, charter schools may not charge tuition and must accept all applicants, although preference may be given to children of parents who started the schools and to siblings of students already attending.
How charter schools developed in Utah:
1998: Utah's first charter school law passes. The law states an intention to expand public school choices, provide opportunities for parental involvement and increase innovation in public schools.
1999: Utah's first eight charter schools open across the state, each with a specific focus, such as technology, environmental studies or performing arts.
2004: A seven-member state board forms to oversee Utah's charter schools.
2005: Lawmakers remove a cap on the number of charter schools in the state, leading to rapid growth in the number of the schools. There were 36 charter schools last fall; this fall there will be 52, including many new schools in affluent Wasatch Front suburbs. Controversy emerges over funding and oversight.
2006: Lawmakers cap the number of charter schools opening in 2007 at five and call for a study.
Sources: Utah State Office of Education, Utah Foundation, Utah Legislature
How we did it
To determine how minority enrollment in charter schools compares with minority enrollment in the school districts in which the schools reside, reporters Celia R. Baker and Julia Lyon first examined 2005-06 fall enrollment data for all charter schools and districts. Students whose race was not identified were not included in the calculation. In Salt Lake County specifically, the reporters plotted charter schools on demographic maps detailing household income and ethnicity to determine whether students have equal access to the schools. The demographic maps were developed by the University of Utah Bureau of Economic and Business Research using census data.