Currently, about 6,000 Idaho students are on waitlists for charter schools. And the state is expected to add nearly 22,000 new prek-12 students by fall 2022. The charter sector can help ensure these students have access to a high-quality school, but only if it is able to grow and expand. Unfortunately, future growth in the charter sector is stymied by its limited access to facilities financing.
In “Building Excellence: How Helping Charters Access Facilities Can Improve Opportunity for Idaho Kids,” we use survey data we collected from Idaho’s charter school leaders to quantify the stark discrepancy in access to state and local facilities funding sources between district and charter schools: On average, districts have access to approximately $1,445 per pupil of state and local funding. Charter schools get less than one-quarter this amount on average: $347.
The leaders of 26 brick-and-mortar charter schools responded to our survey, representing 65 percent of all brick-and-mortar charter schools in the state. In addition to questions about schools’ facilities-related financials, the survey gathered a number of other data points, including the square footage and seat capacity of schools’ current facilities and what amenities (like auditoriums, gyms, and libraries) charter school facilities have. We also asked charter leaders about the specific challenges they face as they search for and finance property for their schools.
This survey data, coupled with follow-up interviews with six school leaders and our analysis of publicly available data and reports, offer four key findings:
Accessing financing is a major barrier to securing an adequate facility. Charter leaders report that accessing financing is one of the most significant barriers they face in purchasing a facility. Idaho’s existing per-pupil facilities allocation is insufficient for covering all facilities-related costs. Too often leaders are forced to rely on operating dollars to fund their schools’ facilities expenditures.
Charter leaders struggle to find suitable properties and often make significant tradeoffs. Finding an existing facility that could be converted into a school or identifying available property on which to build a school is monumental task for Idaho’s charter school leaders, and occupies time they could otherwise devote to students and teachers. Most leaders have to make tradeoffs in order to secure a building for their school, like forgoing a gymnasium or using cheaper materials to construct the building.
Inadequate facilities funding makes it more challenging for charter schools to provide the educational programming they envision. The financial burden of their facilities arrangements often prevents school leaders from using their resources for other programs or services. For example, school leaders indicate that if they spent less money on their facilities, they would use those funds to hire additional staff members, give raises to existing staff members, or purchase additional resources for their classrooms.
Charter schools are able to construct and renovate facilities at a fraction of what districts spend. Charter leaders are doing extraordinary work securing facilities for their schools given the financial constraints they face. Their lack of access to facilities imposes a strong discipline that proves a useful comparison to the practices of traditional school districts — which spend much more per-pupil for school construction projects.
Based on these findings, we make three recommendations to the Idaho legislature to ensure charter public schools have more equitable access to facilities:
Give charter schools the right of first refusal or free or low-cost access to vacant, taxpayer-funded properties. Charter school leaders ought to have low-cost access to vacant, taxpayer-funded facilities in their respective towns. This includes access to vacant school buildings, as well as facilities owned by the state or municipality.
Allow charter schools to be included in local district bonds and levies. In order to provide charter schools with access to local funding sources, school districts must be encouraged to include charter schools’ facilities needs alongside the district’s needs in local bonds and levies.
Increase funding for existing facilities programs. Both the state per-pupil facilities allocation and the Public Charter School Debt Reserve offer some facilities support to charter schools. However, the current per-pupil facilities allocation is less than half of what charter leaders report spending on facilities. Existing funding for the Public Charter School Debt Reserve, which helps high-performing schools access favorable funding, could support only a single charter school. Funding for both must be increased to provide meaningful facilities support for charter schools.
Charter schools can help ensure Idaho’s young people have access to a high-quality education, but only if policymakers continue to address the gaps in charter schools’ access to facilities to enable new schools to open and existing schools to expand.
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