For the Compass Montessori School in Wheat Ridge, Colo., a new state program that provides direct aid for charter school facilities means the school’s leaders can spend more money on instruction and less on paying off the purchase of a converted fruit market.
In the three years since Compass Montessori opened, organizers of the 230-student charter elementary school near Denver have managed to housestudents on a shoestring: buying a vacant farmers’ market with an $800,000 bond, using parent volunteers to install wiring and paint walls, and securing tax-exempt status to pay for a recent addition at a lower interest rate.
Now, the burden of their debt payments will be eased by a $5.3 million charter facilities program signed into law in April by Gov. Bill Owens. The program gives charter schools $322 per pupil every year to help offset facilities expenses.
When viewed alongside a proposed federal program for charter facilities and recent steps to address charter schools’ building needs in Ohio and Indiana, the Colorado action reflects a growing awareness of one of the biggest challenges charter schools face, said Jeanne Allen, the president of the Center for Education Reform.
“I think the radar is now up on the problem,” said Ms. Allen, whose Washington-based organization is a leading advocate of charter schools. “The awareness is key. Charter schools are expected to open and maintain a high degree of accountability, when often they have to cut severely into their operating funds to pay for facilities.”
To some educators in regular public schools, giving greater attention to charter operators’ housing problems is unwarranted. In light of the overwhelming facilities needs of many regular schools, they say, states have more pressing priorities to address.
Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia have active charter programs. Of them, only eight—Arizona, Minnesota, Massachusetts, Florida, Utah, New York, the District of Columbia, and now, Colorado—have programs that provide direct funding for capital expenses through grants or per-pupil allocations.
Meanwhile, charter operators currently have little access to funds for facilities at the federal level. Granted, that may be changing: President Bush has proposed creating a $175 million program to help offset charters’ facilities costs. (“Bush’s Growing Education Budget Has Winners, Losers,” April 18, 2001.) And the U.S. Senate voted last week to approve $525 million in various grants to help charter schools pay for facilities and other start-up costs as a part of the reauthorization of the primary federal K-12 education law.
Yet despite the prospect of greater federal aid, charter school advocates are still looking to states for help. As a result, demands to provide facilities funding for charter schools are playing a secondary but still significant role in pushing some states to become more directly involved in helping to build, remodel, and maintain schools.
New Life for Bowling Alleys
As matters stand, charter school operators often get by with less money for capital costs by setting up shop in buildings such as the market used by the Compass Montessori School, as well as strip malls, vacant churches, or other makeshift structures, said James W. Griffin, the executive director of the Colorado League of Charter Schools.
“You dress it up, and it’s amazing what you can do with an old bowling alley,” Mr. Griffin said.
But even as charter operators struggle to create learning environments in buildings that weren’t designed to be schools, they face a bigger challenge in trying to stretch their budgets to cover facilities costs along with regular operating expenses.
Before the recent passage of the state charter-facilities aid program, Colorado charter schools were devoting between 10 and 15 percent of their operating budgets to facilities, Mr. Griffin said. “It’s hard to make the case that this was a fair system,” he argued. “Not only are they in marginal facilities, but they’re also saddled with having to spend a big portion of their budgets to pay for it.”
In addition to earmarking per-pupil money for charter facilities, Colorado lawmakers approved a more controversial measure that would require that charter schools be given a chance to participate in the bond issues of their local school districts. Faced with heavy opposition from education groups such as the Colorado School Boards Association, which argued that inclusion of charter schools in bond issues would jeopardize their passage in some districts, the legislature agreed to postpone the implementation of the bond-issue requirement until November of next year.
Charter schools may face unique challenges when it comes to paying for facilities, said Jane W. Urschel, the associate executive director of the state school boards’ association, but that’s a part of the bargain they strike to get more flexibility than traditional public schools have.
“That’s the trade-off they make for having other freedoms,” Ms. Urschel said. “The term charter school carries with it a certain status that offers waivers from other school laws.”
Set Up for Failure?
In authorizing a new charter law in Indiana this spring, Hoosier State lawmakers also permitted local school boards to share capital funds with charter schools. The measure will help districts interested in sponsoring charter schools, said Ms. Allen of the Center for Education Reform.
Ultimately, she added, giving charter schools access to the kind of facilities that other students enjoy is a matter of equity.
Lawmakers in the states that haven’t addressed charters’ facilities needs fail to understand that “these schools are real public schools that should be treated the same way traditional public schools are treated when it comes to money,” Ms. Allen said. “Charter school children are no less public school children just because they go to a charter.”
In Ohio, charter schools have operated under a law that provided no direct aid for capital expenses and prohibited charter operators from borrowing money beyond one year—a combination that effectively “set many of these schools up for failure,” said state Rep. Jon Husted, a Republican.
To provide some relief, the legislature established a $10 million loan fund available to back private loans for buying or renovating charter facilities. In addition, the provision permits charter operators to borrow money for up to 15 years.
Ohio lawmakers also approved a measure that requires districts to give charter schools the first opportunity to buy school buildings that districts no longer want. The law was enacted, its supporters say, to ensure that district officials who are opposed to charter schools don’t sabotage such schools’ efforts to find space.
Earlier this year, John Maluso Jr., the president of the school board in the 11,000-student Youngstown, Ohio, school system, commented that he would rather let a school building sit empty than sell it to a charter school. Mr. Maluso said he opposes charter schools because he believes they create a separate public school system “that only has to abide by only one half of the education code.”
A multischool construction project now under way in Youngstown will likely leave the district with some empty buildings. Now, with the new law requiring districts to give charters first dibs on the buildings they put up for sale, Mr. Maluso said he is not sure what the district will decide to do with the school buildings.
“We may have some needs for them—I don’t know,” Mr. Maluso said.
A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2001 edition of Education Week as Some States Help Charter Schools Put a Roof Overhead