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If Charter Schools Build It, Will States Help Pay For It?

Most states have policies on the books to provide some kind of funding support for the facilities that charter schools use. But dive deeper into what's on the books, and the number and types of policies can vary significantly from state to state. 

That's one relatively straightforward conclusion to draw from a new report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools published earlier this month. "State Policy Snapshot: Facilities Funding for Public Charter Schools" says that 30 states and the District of Columbia have a policy covering at least one of the following funding issues charters deal with:

  1. Providing a per-pupil facilities allowance to charter schools; 
  2. Creating a charter school facility grant program; 
  3. Ensuring that charter schools have equal access to all existing state facilities programs and revenues for district-run public schools in a state;
  4. Providing a charter school facility loan program; 
  5. Providing charter schools with access to local property tax dollars generated for facilities. 

In addition, 20 states and the District of Columbia have more than one such policy on the books. However, no jurisdiction has all five policies listed above, according to the alliance. And not every state's policy, such a grant or loan program, actually gets funded. 

Need some of that report's data in visual form? Check out the interactive map below:

Questions about charter school facilities raise several issues and can prove particularly divisive. 

Supporters believe that as public schools, charters shouldn't face particular hardships when it comes to issues like paying for space. And some charters, particularly those that aren't part of big established networks or are just getting off the ground, do face major hurdles when it comes to finding and paying for their locations. As one Portland, Ore., charter founder told Education Week back in 2013, "We have to meet all of these code requirements that older schools [and private schools] may not have to comply with because we're a new school, which makes even the consideration of most spaces impossible and difficult."

However, others argue that comparing charter schools' facilities access to the bonds and other financial tools used by traditional district-run schools oversimplifies how the traditional public schools actually get their facilities. Skeptics have also cited the instance of a charter school suing its management company, Imagine Schools, which also rented a facility to the school, over allegations that Imagine charged the school excessive rent. A similar case played out in Los Angeles in 2013 that ended with two founders of a charter school getting sentenced to prison and community service. 

In New York City, which must provide charters with rental assistance if it doesn't provide public space for them, charter schools' facilities access has provoked bad blood for years

Click for more coverage of parent engagement in schools.

New Opportunity for Charter Facilities?

One additional policy areas charters are exploring? Opportunity Zones. As we wrote earlier this week, these zones were established by the 2017 tax law and are designed to provide tax benefits to investors who put money into designated distressed communities. Supporters of Opportunity Zones believe charters could be big beneficiaries by linking up with these investors, possibly in conjunction with other groups and institutions seeking space, to help with facilities and other costs.

A February presentation on Opportunity Zones hosted by the alliance notes that the structure of the zones "rewards patient capital" (since the tax incentives hinge on long-term investments) and "takes equity capital off the sidelines and puts it to work in low-income communities."

The alliance's July report on state policies says this about the general landscape and trends for this issue:

One of the biggest challenges to the continued expansion of charter schools is the fact that many charter school laws place the ultimate burden of obtaining and paying for facilities on charter schools themselves. As a result, charter school leaders struggle to find suitable and affordable facilities to house their growing numbers of students.

States play an important role in determining the options available to help fund charter school facilities. Increasingly, states are enacting and updating state policies to help offset the cost of leasing, purchasing, and maintaining charter school facilities.

Read the full alliance report on those policies below:


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