Aurora High School is looking for a place to call home.
After spending the first month of the school year meeting in a municipal park, the 75 students at the Redwood City, California, charter school now attend classes on the showroom floor of a former furniture warehouse. The building doubles as a police-training center, and Aurora lessons occasionally are interrupted by the sound of officers-to-be beating punching bags with batons on the other side of the thin partitions that serve as the school’s walls. Once a month, SWAT officers hold rifle practice on the floor above them.
Added to these distractions is the fact that the building is scheduled for demolition next year.
“Our kids want a traditional school setting—they want a real high school experience,” says Alice Miller, the school’s founder. “I actively follow any and all possible leads, almost on a daily basis. It is time-consuming, demoralizing work, with virtually no hopes for success.”
Even with a loan from the state, Miller is struggling to find a permanent site for her school in the San Francisco Bay area, where charter operators compete with dot-com companies for expensive and increasingly scarce commercial real estate. Running out of options on land, she is considering taking the school out to sea. “I have an order in for one of the Coast Guard’s decommissioned buoy breakers,” Miller says. “There’d be enough room on the ship for about four classrooms, and I could berth at the Redwood City Pier.”
While Aurora High’s trials may be extreme, such problems are not uncommon among the more than 2,000 charter schools operating in 33 states and the District of Columbia, according to a new report from the U.S. General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress.
While all charter schools receive per-pupil public financing to cover operating costs, most of them get no extra money for facilities, says the GAO report. They also can’t pass municipal bonds, the most common source of capital financing available to regular public schools. Securing private financing for charters is seldom any easier. Few schools have received buildings from private donors, according to the report. And startup charters have trouble getting bank loans because they own little in the way of assets and operate on short-term contracts. Even in states that allow districts to share construction funds with charter schools, they may not get a piece of the pie. Instead, supporters say, charter schools often lose out to regular public schools that have their own building and renovation needs.
Charter operators “really have to be astute business people because they’re probably not going to get much help from local school officials,” says Robert Holland, a senior fellow with the Lexington Institute, a think tank in Arlington, Virginia, that supports charter schools.
According to the GAO report, many charter schools are turning to the federal government for help securing shelter. The U.S. Department of Education’s $145 million charter school program awards grants to states on a competitive basis; schools can use the federal dollars for planning and assessing their classroom needs, making minor renovations, and offsetting lease or rent payments.
Two other federal initiatives—the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Housing Service and the Qualified Zone Academy Bond program administered by the Department of the Treasury—have also helped some charter schools meet their facility needs. And, as Teacher Magazine went to press, Congress was considering creating a $100 million pilot program that would pay for at least three demonstration projects aimed at helping charter schools with facilities needs.
Accepting federal assistance is an unsettling proposition for those who support charter schools as an independent alternative to centralized education. “The money is welcome—no question about it,” says David DeSchryver, a policy analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Education Reform. “But it becomes a policy question of where we want to be 10 years from now and how fiscally self-reliant we want these schools to be.”
Jon Schroeder, director of the Charter Friends National Network in St. Paul, Minnesota, says his group supports the proposed pilot under consideration in Congress but worries about further government involvement. “We’re not necessarily supporting a huge federal role, but we really would like to see this demonstration leverage more activity by the states and the private sector.”
Bryan Hassell, director of Public Impact, an education consulting firm in Charlotte, North Carolina, says, “Since they don’t get facilities handed to them, charter schools have to work [a solution] out, which can be problematic but can also lead to innovations you don’t see in the traditional public school system.” In Hassell’s 1999 guide for charter school operators, “Out of the Box: Facilities Financing Ideas for Charter Schools,” he cites schools that set up shop in movie theaters, factory buildings, and museums as examples of innovative solutions to the housing dilemma. “Policymakers ought to try to solve this problem in a way that still provides incentives for charters to be creative,” Hassell says.
Charter schools’ struggles win little sympathy from critics. “Our public schools are facing a crisis in school construction—we’re talking about needs totaling $112 billion to $127- billion,” says Daniel Fuller, director of federal programs for the National School Boards Association in Alexandria, Virginia. “Quite frankly, this problem is a lot worse for traditional public schools than it is for charter schools, and as long as 95 percent of our children are attending the traditional public schools, that’s where the money should go.”
—Darcia Harris Bowman