June 1, 2011

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Choice in Education

Is Utah’s Limited Number of Private Schools Inhibiting Growth?

Gaylen Webb

June 1, 2011

Utah’s human capital—our young, highly trained workforce—is one of the hottest commodities in the state’s growing economy. It helps the state remain competitive in recruiting new businesses, provides the backbone for existing businesses to grow and expand, and factors greatly in every aspect of Utah’s economic future. But many insiders worry that Utah’s current K-12 school offerings are leaving Utah’s future workforce weak and ill prepared for the demanding, high-tech jobs of the future. Others wonder if the state doesn’t offer enough private K-12 educational choices to attract or keep young executives here. Is Utah’s relatively limited number of private K-12 schools inhibiting economic growth? Private School Snapshot To be sure, many areas of the country have more private K-12 school choices than Utah, but the Beehive State does have a plethora of successful private school offerings. According to PrivateSchoolReview.com, Utah has 186 private schools: 54 high schools (grades 9-12) and 132 elementary schools (grades PK-8). Salt Lake County has the highest concentration of private schools, with 24 high schools and 77 elementary schools. Overall, private schools are concentrated in Salt Lake, Utah, Davis, Weber and Washington counties. Of the 186 private schools listed by PrivateSchoolReview.com, 69 are classified as faith-based, with Catholicism being the predominant religion represented. Education and Economic Growth In terms of growing the economy and recruiting businesses and executives to the state, corporate relocation expert Jan Dickinson says whether the available schools are private or public is not nearly as important as the quality of education provided, where the schools rank nationally and what is offered via subject matter. For example, she explains that if a state is looking to attract engineers or high-tech businesses, weak offerings in math and science at K-12 schools—be they public or private—could be a real recruitment turn-off. As president and CEO of the Dickinson Group, a corporate relocation enterprise based in Portland, Ore., she ought to know. Dickinson is an internationally recognized authority in all phases of corporate relocation and has authored 47 books, including The Complete Guide to Family Relocation. Dickinson points to the strength of the public school system in a state as the main factor that determines whether there is a need for private schools. “If the public school system is strong, there will tend to be fewer private schools,” she says. “More private schools are created because the public system is perceived as not satisfying the needs of those seeking an education.” In Utah, economic development leaders don’t see the state’s educational system and dearth of private schools as an inhibitor to recruitment. “Educational offerings are certainly a big part of the decision process for businesses and executives looking to relocate here, but having fewer private schools than other states is not an inhibitor to our economic development efforts,” says Jeff Edwards, president and CEO of the Economic Development Corporation of Utah. “Most people have been quite happy with the school choices they have found here.” Educational Innovation Richard R. Nelson, president and CEO of the Utah Technology Council, has strong feelings about the K-12 educational opportunities and obstacles in Utah. He says Utah has adapted to the relatively low percentage of private schools by launching charter schools and online education courses on an a la carte basis. While these are great first steps, says Nelson, more needs to be done—especially in aligning the state’s educational offerings with industry needs. The ideology behind charter schools is to have greater freedom to innovate in educating children. Since charter schools are market driven and must compete for students, Nelson says they offer greater accountability and function more closely to a private school model, despite the fact that they are publicly funded. The Utah State Office of Education (USOE) reports that 40,000 Utah children were enrolled in charter schools in the 2010 school year. By fall there will be 82 charter schools in Utah, according to Robyn Bagley, board chair of Parents for Choice in Education. Enrollment appears to be limited only by state policy regarding the number of charter schools that can be created in any given year. Bagley notes that some charter schools are so wildly popular they have long waiting lists of students wanting to attend. The majority of the charter schools serve students in grades K-8; however, three charter schools are actually statewide online high schools. Further, a new statewide online education program passed by the Utah Legislature this year will allow all Utah students in grades 9-12 to take up to two courses online this fall, with the number of course offerings increasing each year until 2017, when students will be able to take all of their courses online if they desire. Nelson says the state’s move toward more online, computer-based learning options for students beginning in the 9th grade embraces the “disruptive innovation” ideology described by global thought leader Clayton Christensen in his book Disrupting Class, which predicts that by 2018, 50 percent of high school students will be served by online learning. “It’s a big step forward,” Nelson adds. To be sure, properly educating Utah’s future workforce is a complex issue and the state’s educational system is underfunded, which makes the need for innovation all the more imperative, Nelson concludes. A sample of private schools in the state include: * Wasatch Academy (Mt. Pleasant) * Waterford School (Sandy) * Judge Memorial Catholic High School (Salt Lake City) * Intermountain Christian School (Salt Lake City) * American Heritage School (American Fork) * Juan Diego Catholic High School (Draper) * Challenger School (six locations from Farmington to West Jordan) * Christian Heritage School (Riverdale)
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