Academic journal article Education Next

Whose School Buildings Are They, Anyway? Making Public School Facilities to Charters

Academic journal article Education Next

Whose School Buildings Are They, Anyway? Making Public School Facilities to Charters

Article excerpt

With our strong distaste for monopolies, America has developed a proud tradition of trust-busting. From Standard Oil to AT&T, Congress and the courts have intervened to keep corporate monopolists from controlling the terms of trade for their rivals. Yet in public K-12 education, there is a curious twist on this pattern: 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. The trust is only half-busted in this case--our laws lag decades behind the reality on the ground.

School districts held an exclusive franchise on public education services until 1991, when Minnesota passed the first law permitting public charter schools. Charter schools are publicly funded, authorized by various agencies designated in public law, but independently managed. They operate outside district control, and most can draw students from all across town, not just those who live within neighborhood boundaries. Virtual charter schools can attract students from all around the state, without regard to any traditional school-district boundary. Parents have a choice, competition has arrived, and innovation can flourish.

But there's a catch: traditional public-school districts still own the great majority of school buildings, and with rare exceptions, public charter schools have no legal claim to them. If charters want to build their own facilities, they face enormous obstacles. They have no taxing power, no access to state capital budgets, and, ordinarily, no bonding authority--they are shut off from the prevailing public sources of revenue for school construction. Distressingly often, they are denied access even to school buildings that the district no longer uses. Charter schools must take a wide detour around this enormous fiscal pothole. They have won credit enhancements to sweeten private lending and federal incentives to encourage states to create charter-specific facilities programs, and they must conduct ongoing campaigns to raise funds from private donors.

The lack of available facilities is a direct and pressing constraint on the growth of high-quality charter schools. According to a recent survey by the National Charter School Research Project, scarcity of facilities was listed first among all reported external barriers to growth of charter management organizations, mentioned in 89 percent of responses.

Let's explore the sources and consequences of the iron grip school districts typically enjoy over the financing, development, ownership, and deployment of public school facilities--and some promising strategies for breaking it.

Financing Challenges

From the Minnesota statute on, access to dedicated revenues for facility construction was the gravest omission from state charter-school laws. The gap may have seemed reasonable at first. Charters were new and untried, and most were chartered for a term of five years, sometimes less. So even friendly policymakers resisted giving them the keys to funding instruments traditionally used by districts to build and maintain impressive, permanent structures. For a few years, as charters sprung up in storefronts and church basements., the policy almost seemed plausible (see sidebar).

Today, a mere nuisance has burgeoned into the foremost hurdle to the rapid expansion of high-quality charter schools. As the number of students entering charters has grown steadily year by year, comprising in 2012 approximately 4.2 percent of public school students nationwide, the case for rethinking the capital requirements of the charter sector has become overwhelming. Today's charter community boasts large schools, extensive networks, and impressive market share. In six major school districts (New Orleans, Louisiana; the District of Columbia; Detroit, Michigan; Kansas City, Missouri; Flint, Michigan; and Gary, Indiana), at least 30 percent of public school students are enrolled in public charter schools. …

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