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Free the Facilities! Getting Facilities Policy Right

Note: This week we have Marc Porter Magee, Ph.D, guest-blogging. He is the CEO and founder of 50CAN, a nonprofit organization that works at the local level to advocate for a high-quality education for all kids.

Improving school facilities is the kind of well-meaning policy issue that struggles to rise above the seemingly more urgent needs or exciting opportunities in the world of education. It doesn't exactly lend itself to banner headlines. But the more time you spend studying facilities policy, the more it becomes clear that getting facilities right is key to ensuring many of the bigger goals for transforming education.

In yesterday's guest post, we discussed the notion that most education change efforts could be thought of as falling into one of three approaches:

  • District-centric change seeks to empower school districts to more effectively deliver education to their students by putting performance front and center while working within the existing systems and structure.  
  • School-centric change seeks to empower schools to better serve students and families by freeing them from most or all of the constraints of the district system.
  • Learner-centric change seeks to not simply make the district-based system work more effectively or to free schools from red tape, but to empower learners by placing them at the center of our education system.

Our facilities policies are tilted strongly in favor of the traditional district-centric system—which makes sense given that it has been around much longer than the other two approaches. Much of the debate today over facilities can be understood as an effort to modernize the way we think about facilities support to give school-centric and learner-centric change strategies the opportunity to thrive.

The good news is that in recent years a number of states have taken the lead in updating their approach to facilities, a trend likely to accelerate throughout 2016.

Embracing a school-centric facilities policy

While public charter schools have grown over the past 25 years into a significant part of the larger public school system, the simple fact is that fewer than one-quarter of states currently have policies in place that provide charter schools with access to district facilities. At the same time, most charter schools lack the kind of access to capital that would make it possible to build their own facilities. They don't have access to the same financing vehicles that are available to districts (like local bonding) and the short-term nature of the charters they operate under make it difficult to secure long-term loans. In many areas of the country, facilities restrictions are the greatest barriers to charter school growth.

But local advocates are starting to level the playing field and provide a path forward for school-centric change:

  • Starting in 2014, Texas allowed charter schools to access its Permanent School Fund, a pool of money that guarantees Texas school facilities bonds and thereby lends them a AAA credit rating. This credit enhancement mechanism makes it much easier for charter schools to acquire facilities loans.
  • A recently passed Wisconsin law requires Milwaukee Public Schools to sell vacant buildings to charter schools.
  • In 2015, Rhode Island created a new $20 million revolving loan fund that all public schools— including charters—can access.

Exploring a learner-centric facilities policy

Perhaps even more complex than providing all schools equal access to school facilities is the challenge of creating a facilities policy that works for, rather than against, a learner-centric vision for education.

The first step is exploring the kind of facilities that can help put learners at the center of their own education and then leveraging these experiments to help inform the policies that can support these approaches.

In 2013, the American Architectural Foundation (AAF), with the support of the Gates Foundation, launched its Design for Learning initiative. Design for Learning aims to "turn 20th century schools into 21st century learning environments." As part of the initiative, AAF is partnering with six school districts selected for their commitment to personalized learning to transform their existing schools. AAF recently announced plans to expand Design for Learning to reach 100 additional school districts by the end of 2018.

By leveraging these and other innovation approaches—like the work of e3 Civic High School in San Diego and Merit Prep Newark to push the envelope when it comes to designing innovative facilities—we have an opportunity in the coming year to dramatically expand our understanding of how to change our approach to facilities so it accelerates rather than inhibits this push for change.

While facilities policies alone won't get us to the high-performing education system we seek, getting facilities policy right helps bring us closer to all the other changes we need to make to reach the goal of a high-quality education for all kids, regardless of address.  

--Marc Porter Magee

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