Charter School Facilities: Overlooked and Underfunded
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published here on May 17, 2019 by the Washington Examiner and was written by Nina Rees, CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools and Ramona Edelin, Executive Director of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools.
Across the U.S., accessing charter school facilities is, by far, the greatest challenge faced by charter schools. With more than 1 million students across the country on charter school waitlists and the fact that many charters operate in suboptimal buildings, we know that the lack of facilities is a serious obstacle to charter growth.
We think it’s vital to keep tabs on the pulse of all things related to charter schools, including informational resources, and how to support school choice, charter school growth, and the advancement of the charter school movement as a whole. We hope you find this—and any other article we curate—both interesting and valuable.
Charter school facilities are still overlooked and underfunded
It’s National Charter Schools Week, when advocates speak out for the 3.2 million students — 6% of all public school students — educated at charter schools, a thriving public education option that is increasingly popular with families.
Since the first public charter school opened one quarter of a century ago, the charter school reform has spread to 47 states and U.S. territories. In historically troubled school districts, student enrollment has grown dramatically. In New Orleans, Detroit and Washington, D.C., the share of students enrolled in public charter schools is 92%, 53%, and 47%, respectively.
Taxpayer-funded and tuition-free, charters develop their educational programs independently of school districts while being held accountable for improved student performance. This autonomy enables these unique public schools to adopt approaches that boost student outcomes. But it also creates a challenge: unlike traditional public schools, charters do not receive a schoolhouse upon opening. This makes acquiring adequate school space a constant challenge.
Nationwide, charter school leaders report that lack of access to suitable school facilities is one of their primary concerns—and one of the biggest barriers to expanding student enrollment. Nearly 1 in 5 charters had to delay opening by a year or more due to facilities-related issues.
While public school buildings paid for by taxpayers should be available to all public school students, the reality is that many school districts, including Detroit, Indianapolis, and Minneapolis, refuse to allow charter schools to lease or buy even vacant school buildings. Sadly, this results in many schools operating out of shopping malls, office buildings and repurposed industrial facilities.
Accordingly, around 40% of charters lack essential amenities such as gymnasiums, libraries, science labs, cafeterias and outdoor space, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools research finds.
This is a vital issue. Why? Because demand for charter schools from parents and guardians significantly exceeds supply. Indeed, if all families seeking a place for their child could secure one, the total number of charter students would be 8.5 million — almost three times today’s actual enrollment — according to research by Phi Delta Kappa International, a professional organization for educators. Of parents who would like to send their child to a public charter school, over half cited lack of access — the school is too distant or has a waitlist — as the reason why their children did not attend one, PDK found.
Importantly, over half of the nation’s charter students live in economically-disadvantaged homes eligible for federal lunch subsidies.
In Washington, D.C., the government spends three times the amount per student on school properties for traditional schools compared to the facility funding it makes available to their charter school counterparts, even though the charters serve a higher share of needy students. Local charters receive a per-student allowance for school facilities that varies each year through city budget wrangling and election cycles, and consequently lacks appeal to the private sector loan market to which charters must turn in a city with a red-hot real estate market.
Meanwhile, the District government has proved an appalling steward of its own property: for decades, scores of surplus school buildings have been sold to private developers, often for luxury uses, or simply left to rot. Only months ago, developers acquired five historic schoolhouses at a time when 11,000 students are on waitlists for city charters.
The District’s own laws actually require it to offer surplus school property to charters to lease or buy before developers can. This mandate is flouted more often than not, an injustice one finds repeated in the minority of other jurisdictions whose laws ostensibly protect charter students’ interests.
While four in five D.C. charter students are economically disadvantaged, those representing the city’s most vulnerable communities are twice as likely to meet college and career readiness benchmarks as their peers in the traditional school system.
At the federal level, the Charter Schools Program helps charters access space and overcome other start-up hurdles. But funding amounts to less than 1% of the U.S. Department of Education’s budget, which does not reflect the extent of charter school enrollment — or demand — today.
Because parent demand indicates millions more students would attend a charter school if one were available to them, local jurisdictions need to allow charters access to surplus public school buildings and space before developers can bid for them. Prioritizing equality in per-student facilities funding also is essential. Federal education grants could encourage this best practice.
America’s public charter schools have significantly enhanced public education quality, especially for the nation’s most disadvantaged students. Federal, state, and local government should step up to back them.
The Ultimate Guide to Charter School Facility Financing:
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