Ohio’s capital budget pays for stadiums and barns, but not charter schools

Getty Images/BrianGuest

Ohio legislators recently unveiled a $2.6 billion capital budget bill for fiscal years 2019 and 2020. Inside this year’s iteration are routine items like park and correctional facilities maintenance. But there are also more curious requests, including $5 million for a glass-enclosed corridor at COSI, $4 million for a potential soccer stadium in Cincinnati, $1 million to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and a quarter million for barn renovations in Delaware County. Enacted in even-numbered years, the capital budget generally funds building and infrastructure projects; it is separate from the state’s larger operating budget, which is passed in odd-numbered years.

A major chunk of the capital budget is also dedicated to education. This includes $485 million to higher education and $600 million to K–12. Practically all of the K–12 allotment flows to Ohio school districts (including joint vocational) through the Classroom Facilities Assistance Program or CFAP. In general, this program offers funding based on district wealth, prioritizing support for less wealthy districts in need of facility upgrades (contingent on them raising local tax revenue via bond issues). Established shortly after the first of several DeRolph v. State of Ohio school-funding cases, CFAP has disbursed over $11.5 billion to upgrade more than 1,100 schools throughout Ohio since 1997. The proposed FY 2019–20 capital budget keeps the spigot open for districts’ facility projects over the next two years.

All this brings us to public charter schools. Despite the millions budgeted for other projects, charters are provided no new facility funds in this year’s capital budget. This continues policies that have long failed to ensure that charter students learn in adequate, let alone state-of-the-art, facilities. After years of providing charters no money specifically for facilities, Ohio lawmakers began to help in 2013 by providing a small facility allowance. Today, this amount is roughly $200 per student per year, equivalent to a $16.6 million line item in the state operating budget. In 2015, legislators also enacted a $25 million Community School Classroom Facility (CSCF) program for high-performing charters. In the first round of grants, eight of Ohio’s almost 400 charter schools received a total of $17 million for capital improvements; awards for the second round of grants, worth just over $4 million, were recently announced. Unlike districts, charter schools cannot raise local tax revenue for their facility needs. 

State support for charter facilities is critical, but regrettably funding still remains wholly inadequate. A study sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education last year found that Ohio charters spend an average of $785 per student annually for facilities—far above the $200 per pupil allotment provided to most charter schools. This allowance is even more insufficient in light of the $2,200 per student that districts spent on facilities in FY 2017. To make up for this shortfall, charters are often forced to dip into operational funds used to pay teacher salaries and instructional materials, and most rent classroom space rather than owning a traditional school building. In our 2016 charter survey, one leader spoke of the implications of working in such inadequate conditions: “The facilities do hinder us right now because there are things that our kids could be doing in science but we can’t get the lab.” Another charter leader mentioned having to use modular units—basically classroom trailers—instead of operating out of an actual building. And our former intern Michael Periatt conducted an analysis a few years ago that found most Columbus area charters locate in commercial properties, not in buildings specifically designed to educate children.

The building in which a school operates might not be the most important factor for student outcomes, but it does matter. Ohio policymakers should do more to assist fiscally and educationally sound brick-and-mortar charters secure suitable facilities. To do so, the state should consider the following:

  • First, inject new money into the Community School Classroom Facility program, whose funds are likely to be spent down in the coming months. In doing so, they should set a funding amount above the original $25 million pool, allowing grantees to cover a greater portion of the construction and renovation costs. (Construction isn’t cheap—upwards of $10 million per school.) Legislators can bump up the CSCF amount either through the capital budget or next year’s operating budget.
  • Second, loosen CSCF’s eligibility requirements so that more charter schools can apply for grants. As mentioned above, the program will soon award $8 million in grants—but the strict rules in the appropriating legislation permitted less than twenty schools and just a handful of non-district operators to apply.
  • Third, in next spring’s operating budget, increase the per-student allocation from the current amount of $200 per brick-and-mortar charter pupil to an amount that more closely aligns with facility costs. Other states provide far more generous support, including upwards of $1,000 per pupil in Minnesota and California. Ohio should follow the lead of these less parsimonious states.

Too many responsible charter schools have had to scrape by with inadequate facilities. This is no longer a sustainable approach for Ohio. Charters’ ability to attract families or talented educators is hampered when their facilities lack educational, arts, or athletic amenities (much less “curbside appeal”). The lack of widespread building ownership among charter schools likely feeds a mistaken perception that they’re fly-by-night institutions. It continues to make Ohio an undesirable place for high-performing charter management organizations to locate. (Top-notch networks such as Achievement First, Uncommon Schools, or IDEA Public Schools don’t operate in Ohio.) Most troubling of all, scrimping on facilities cheats young people—many of whom come from less-advantaged families—of their opportunity to learn in a world-class environment.

In the proposed capital budget, legislators found it in their hearts to allot taxpayer dollars for stadiums, halls of fame, and barn restorations. Perhaps they can also find some money to ensure that Ohio’s 100,000 public charter school students spend eight hours a day, 180 days a year in suitable facilities.

Aaron Churchill
Aaron Churchill is the Ohio Research Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.