School Choice & Charters

Charter Schools’ Building Struggles Highlight Lingering Tensions With Local Districts

By Mark Lieberman — October 26, 2023 | Corrected: November 05, 2023 7 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this article misstated David Marshall’s affiliation. He’s an associate professor of educational research at Auburn University.

Should charter schools get to use public funds for construction and building maintenance? Can traditional public schools refuse to allow charter schools into their buildings? How much should states invest in charter facilities?

These are among the questions education policymakers and advocates have been pondering in recent years as the number of charter schools continues to grow and the number of states that prohibit them continues to drop.

Debates have recently sprung up over how to ensure that existing charter schools can keep up with the kinds of maintenance needs that also plague traditional public school buildings nationwide—leaky roofs, faulty HVAC units, crumbling structures.

The core question, in many cases, is who’s responsible for covering costs. More than 7,800 charter schools serving 3.7 million students are operating in 45 states, according to 2021 federal data. They’re funded primarily with state dollars, but most are managed by private nonprofits or, in some cases, for-profit companies.

Charter school advocates say their students deserve safe and healthy buildings just as much as students in traditional public schools.

But charter leaders say lacking access to a base of local taxes means they sometimes struggle to invest in those facilities—or they end up having to devote a larger share of their overall budgets to fixing buildings than traditional public schools do.

Watershed Public Charter School in Baltimore educates K-8 students with a curriculum centered around environmental literacy. But the school’s facility, a former Catholic school built in 1955, doesn’t reflect the school’s environmental ethos, said Jessie Lehson, the school’s executive director.

“We have our students doing energy audits and all this amazing activism, and then we’re in this building that’s guzzling oil from an old steam boiler,” Lehson said during a recent session at the annual conference for the Association of School Business Officers (ASBO) International.

The school recently experienced what Lehson described as a rare windfall when the U.S. Department of Energy named it one of 24 recipients nationwide of a grant to fund energy-efficient improvements and building modernization. The Watershed School will use its $1.2 million allocation to pay for a new HVAC system and solar panels that produce energy to sustain the school, with some left over.

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for us to access this kind of funding we would never have been able to access otherwise,” Lehson said.

States are paving the way for charters to access facilities funds

Watershed was the only charter school to receive federal funding through that grant program. More broadly, charter schools have lost political momentum in recent years as more Democrats have tempered their support for the model and Republicans have gravitated toward private school choice.

Even so, providing more financial support for charter facilities is gaining momentum in some states.

Florida now requires districts to share portions of their local tax revenue with charter schools for building improvements. North Carolina recently approved a law permitting counties to raise local tax dollars for charter school building work. California, through its charter school facilities program, has long covered 50 percent of costs for charter school construction and renovation projects, as well as property acquisition. The schools repay the other half as a loan at interest rates set by the state, rather than commercial markets.

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Robert Hill, Head of School at Alice M. Harte Charter School, talks with students in New Orleans on Dec. 18, 2018.
Robert Hill, Head of School at Alice M. Harte Charter School, talks with students in New Orleans on Dec. 18, 2018. Charter schools have taken a backseat in school choice debates to policies expanding private school choice.
Gerald Herbert/AP

Indiana, Ohio, and Oklahoma have passed policies that allow charter schools to tap state aid for building projects. Advocates in Idaho, Nebraska, New Jersey, and West Virginia are pushing their state lawmakers to follow suit.

And bipartisan support for charter schools hasn’t completely dried up. In May, one Democratic U.S. senator and one Republican U.S. senator proposed a bill that would offer federal grants to charter schools for facilities improvements.

These policies and proposals illustrate deeper tensions: namely, the blurry and oft-debated lines between traditional public schools and charter schools, said Robert Cotto, a professor of education at Trinity College.

“What is the state’s responsibility? It’s in that gray area,” Cotto said.

The messiness extends to the core question of where charter schools should be located. Many charter operators struggle to find affordable and feasible sites upfront that fit their needs.

A school’s long-term needs and the result of negotiations over building space sometimes don’t line up, said David Marshall, an associate professor of educational research at Auburn University and a former member of Alabama’s charter school authorization board.

Charter schools often aim to expand enrollment over time, often adding a new grade annually as they build up, which means finding a space of the appropriate size can be even harder. And they sometimes struggle to convince financiers to approve a short-term loan of only five years, the length of time they’re typically approved to operate initially, Marshall said.

“If you’re buying a home, and you’re saying, ‘I can guarantee I’ll pay the mortgage for the first five years,’ that’s not typically what they want to hear,” Marshall said. Since 2017, the nonprofit Equitable Facilities Fund for charter schools has provided loans totaling more than $1 billion for facilities—an option charter schools often have to tap when state funds won’t suffice.

To help them out, some states require school districts to offer charter schools the right of first refusal to take over building space they’re not using, sometimes for as little as one cent. The Indianapolis school district is currently engaged in an ongoing legal fight with the state after arguing that the state law requiring districts to sell vacant buildings to charters for $1 doesn’t apply to two of its vacant buildings currently on the market.

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Achievement First charter school is seen Saturday, March 7, 2020, in Providence, R.I.
Achievement First charter school is seen Saturday, March 7, 2020, in Providence, R.I. A new study from researchers who have analyzed charter school performance over two decades finds that the publicly funded, independently run schools are now outperforming traditional public schools.
David Goldman/AP

In major cities like New York City and Oakland, Calif., charter start-ups have sought to “co-locate” their programs within traditional public school facilities. But that practice, too, can be controversial—Los Angeles school leaders moved last month to begin drafting a policy that limits the number of its school buildings charters can access, arguing that charters are taking up space that could be occupied by music classrooms, food pantries, mental health counselors, and other district priorities.

Charter schools’ position in the broader education landscape continues to evolve

These developments strike Cotto as evidence of ongoing confusion and disagreement over the position charter schools should occupy in the broader education landscape.

“Why are oftentimes elected, sometimes appointed officials allowing new charter schools to be formed without dealing with the fact that these schools are going to be taking space somehow, some way?” Cotto said.

Indeed, efforts to invest more state funds and traditional public school resources in charter facilities often face pushback. In New Jersey, the nonprofit Education Law Center opposes efforts to direct state funds to charter school facilities, on the grounds that those funds will end up in the hands of private building owners if charter schools close. A school board member in Los Angeles argued that vacant school buildings would be more valuable to surrounding neighborhoods if they were converted into residences rather than housing charter schools.

Sometimes charter school building locations raise ethical concerns. Education scholars Bruce Baker and Preston Green have published several papers highlighting questionable financial arrangements with charter school operators renting buildings from companies they own and pocketing the costs of rent. A charter school that recently closed in Philadelphia, for instance, was paying rent to a nonprofit controlled by the school’s top administrator.

In light of this, Cotto believes some charter schools should more strongly consider being absorbed or reabsorbed into their public school districts, while maintaining the unique educational approaches that helped them get off the ground. This model would align the vision of charter schools championed in the late 1980s by Albert Shanker, then-president of the American Federation of Teachers.

See Also

Nina Rees walks on stage during the National Charter Schools Conference held from June 18 through June 21, 2023, at the Austin Convention Center in Austin, Texas.
Nina Rees walks on stage during the National Charter Schools Conference held from June 18 through June 21, 2023, at the Austin Convention Center in Austin, Texas.
Courtesy of McLendon Photography

“There are countless examples of charter schools in parts of cities where the public school buildings aren’t even funded appropriately,” Cotto said. Nationwide, public schools would need to ramp up annual spending on facilities by $85 billion to ensure all buildings are safe and modern, according to the 21st Century School Fund.

Marshall, meanwhile, hopes to see fewer situations in which school districts insist on leaving buildings vacant rather than lending them to charter schools searching for space. Recent trends show declining enrollment in traditional public schools and increasing enrollment in charter schools, potentially exacerbating the need for additional space as more districts close schools.

“It already has the infrastructure, already set up to be a school,” Marshall said. “What do the details look like? I’ll let someone else field that.”

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