How facility funding fails charter schools

When the Ortonville Montessori charter school outside of Flint, Michigan, offered to buy a vacant building from the Brandon school district for $100,000, district officials weighed whether it made more fiscal sense to take the money now or demolish the building as planned and avoid losing possibly more students—and more state funding per pupil—to the charter. Last week, the Brandon Board of Education opted for demolition.

It didn’t matter that the building has sat empty for years and that the district has tried unsuccessfully to sell it to other buyers. It didn’t want to sell to the Ortonville charter because, as Brandon superintendent Lori McMahon casually told a local reporter, “It would be competition for us.”

While extreme, the challenges facing Ortonville focus attention on the struggles for adequate facilities that still bedevil most charter schools. Now twenty years old, many charter schools still commonly rent or own building space that is much smaller than that occupied by their traditional public school peers or that lack kitchens, gymnasiums, libraries, or science and computer labs.

That’s the assessment of a survey of charters in ten states released last week by the Charter Schools Facilities Initiative, a joint project of the Colorado League of Charter Schools and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. The Initiative has sought to highlight the persistent capital needs of charter schools and their inequitable treatment and has developed policy recommendations to provide long-range and systemic solutions.

Despite the surge in charter school enrollment nationally and the support the sector receives from both political parties, the Alliance and the League have documented that charters still largely direct money from instruction, classroom support, and administration to their facilities. Local tax revenues remain out of reach for most charters, and while several school districts have included charters in their local bond initiatives in recent years, most districts ask voters to ante up only for neighborhood schools.

This leaves charters with mostly slim pickings among older and smaller buildings that don’t meet all of their needs. Consider some highlights from the Initiative’s survey:

  • At least 60 percent of the charter school classrooms in each state surveyed are considerably smaller than those at district schools
  • In nine of the ten states surveyed, less than 50 percent of charters have a kitchen that meets the qualifications to prepare meals on-site
  • In three states—Indiana, Texas, and Tennessee—half of all charter high schools lacked access to a gymnasium
  • Charters in most states surveyed reported that they lacked at least one specialized instructional space, such as a library, a science lab, or a music room
  • The average charter the Initiative surveyed spends 10 percent of its operating budget on facilities

In other words, public charter school students are still treated unequally compared to their peers attending traditional public schools. While some states such as Florida are raising the amount of state dollars available to help fund charter facilities, that money is paltry compared to the building and renovation dollars available to school districts. And it’s largely non-recurring money, meaning charters in those states have to go to their legislatures every year to ask for a handout.

While some districts such as those in Cleveland, San Diego, and Metropolitan Denver have cooperated with charters in ways that enhance both sectors of public education, many traditional school systems erect roadblocks to vacant or public buildings, just as the Brandon school district did. Therefore, the charter movement cannot rely on whatever sense of collegiality school districts might display, and charters shouldn’t have to rely on a willing seller and a buyer’s market alone. Charters and their advocates ought to lobby their legislature with the ideas the Initiative has put forth.

Those include a per-pupil facility allowance which annually—and accurately—reflects capital needs, a state grant program for charter school facilities, allowing charters to have their own bonding authority, and providing charters access to the same facility-funding programs available to traditional public schools. Twenty years in, that’s not much to ask for a sector that now serves more than 2.3 million children nationwide.

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