An Accident of History: Breaking the District Monopoly on Public School Facilities

“Public education sometimes seems to operate on its own planet, immune to the conventions that bind other areas of our economy and public life,” writes Nelson Smith in this National Alliance for Public Charter Schools report. He further explains (in a companion Education Next article) that “school districts have largely lost their monopoly on education programming, but are still the only game in town when it comes to financing, developing, and deploying public school buildings.” Of the forty-two states that now have charter laws on the books, only eleven offer direct support for facilities expenses, and only three provide more than $1,000 per pupil toward these costs. Charters have no taxing power, no access to state capital budgets, and often no bonding authority. What’s more, when states do enact laws offering facilities aid to charters, these statutes are too often interpreted away or disregarded. Smith’s exposé offers an historical account of the situation and current examples of how it plays out in states and districts. Smith concludes with three potential approaches to facilities-portfolio management. The “Real Estate Trust” would put a single state entity in charge of all school facilities; schools (both public and charter) would receive faculties funding and would lease their buildings from the Trust. The “Construction Authority” would be a locally controlled “soup to nuts” body, in charge of handling all financing, building, and overseeing of local schools. The third option would contract out the entire facilities process to nonprofits. Will these options strip control of school buildings away from districts? Yes. But these buildings are public assets—not assets of a particular system or entity. They should be treated as such.

SOURCE: Nelson Smith, An Accident of History: Breaking the District Monopoly on Public School Facilities (Washington, D.C.: National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, July 2012).

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