OGDEN -- What started as an emotional movement to change the way children received an education 10 years ago has developed into a legitimate schooling option for more than 34,000 Utah students.
The Legislature approved charter schools in 2000, several years after they had become popular nationally. The concept was to provide parents with choices in public school education for their children.
"The purpose of charter schools in general is to give diversity to public schools," said Deena Pyle, director of communications for the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools.
"They are definitely public schools, their charter and contract is with the state of Utah, and the charter schools are given a mandate to be innovative and to keep the promise they've made to the charter.
"They are generally started as a school with a specific mission and purpose in mind."
Each school has a focus, or emphasis, such as Spanish, arts or technology. Much of the curriculum is centered around that specific focus.
Lani Round, principal of Quest Academy in West Haven, said the focus of that school is technology.
"We try to integrate technology throughout the curriculum," she said.
"In our school, we have about 280 computers. We have two stationary labs and six mobile labs. The teachers use computers, we have iTouches, we have interactive white boards. There's multiple ways they integrate technology into the curriculum."
The integration helps students learn a specific skill, giving them an advantage over other students in the public school system.
Jed Stevenson, president and owner of Academica West, a management company that acts much like a district administration to charter schools, said his children attend North Davis Preparatory Academy.
The school's emphasis on Spanish has helped his children, he said.
"It gives them an opportunity and a huge leg up in the competitive world we all live in, and the rest of their learning is enhanced by learning a foreign language."
Stevenson said he initially became interested in the charter school movement several years ago.
He was working as an associate lawyer and felt charter schools needed better business management. In 2002, he started Academica West, a support organization that acts much like a school district but focuses on the business side, not what is taught in the classrooms.
"We have blown past a fledging, pioneering emotional movement," he said.
"I wouldn't say we're mainstream yet, but we've been around long enough that the results speak for themselves. This isn't just a good idea any longer -- we've proven ourselves."
But becoming accepted as a more mainstream form of education hasn't been easy for charter schools.
Marlies Burns, state director of charter schools, said it has been a challenge.
"It's been an ongoing process to get funding equity, and to try to receive equality," she said. "It's been a battle nearly the entire time."
Currently, 71 charter schools are serving more than 34,166 students in Utah. Seven more charter schools are slated to open this fall.
Charter schools do not handpick their students. If the number applying exceeds the school's capacity, the school picks students lottery-style.
Although charter schools take students away from traditional public education, said Davis School District spokesman Chris Williams, the district has a working relationship with charter schools, whose existence helps keep the district's enrollment numbers lower.
"Our superintendant meets regularly with principals (of charter schools) in the county," he said.
"We like to think we have a good working relationship with them. The charters have actually helped us with the student enrollment within the district.
"We grow at a thousand new students per year. If it wasn't for the charter schools, that growth would be burdensome to us.
"We build schools as fast as we can, but we'd be building more schools if it wasn't for the charters."
Noel Zabriskie, Ogden City School District superintendant, said charter schools have affected the district.
"Obviously, it has impacted the number of students that school districts have," he said.
"I think, in another sense, (charter schools) have helped the school district and the other public schools to not only examine what they are doing well, but to let people know the good things that are happening."
Burns, the state director of charter schools, said the goal of charter schools is to worry less about expansion and focus more on the education their students receive.
"We're looking more toward quality versus quantity," she said. "Now the focus is more on how we ensure they are high-quality schools."
Pyle, the director of communications for the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools, said the future of charter schools will be working to give all students in Utah the best education available.
"With 10 years behind us, and with the momentum we're riding on, we will continue to have a sustained dialogue with all public education in Utah to build some bridges and build collaboration to ensure that everybody is offering the most excellent education to students," she said.
"It's not intended to be a dividing situation. At everyone's core, we are all genuinely interested in education for the Utah student."