An Accident of History: Breaking the District Monopoly on Public School Facilities
Traditional public school districts hold a monopoly over the financing and ownership of public education facilities. With rare exceptions, public charter schools have no legal claim to these buildings. This monopoly is an accident of history. It would never have developed had there been substantial numbers of other public schools, not supervised by traditional districts, when public school facilities laws were written. The district model of facilities planning is not suited to a diverse portfolio of autonomous schools with distinct programs and life-cycles that require different spaces at different times.
What public charter schools currently receive in facilities aid is simply inadequate. Of the 42 jurisdictions with charter laws, only 17 provide any kind of direct facilities aid, either capital grants or per pupil funding, and just three of those provide per-pupil capital funding of more than $1,000. The status quo is costly both to public charter schools, which must use operating dollars to pay for facilities expenses, and to districts, which pay inordinate amounts to maintain vacant facilities and lose potential rental income in the process.
Certain principles should guide the creation of a new system: It must serve all the children in a given community; treat all public schools as equal competitors for available space; make school performance an element in decisions about occupancy; only require payment for space if public facilities dollars are provided to schools; and free educators (in both charters and traditional schools) to focus on student achievement rather than facilities.
Change must begin in the state capital by ensuring charters equitable access to both existing space and any state facilities revenue streams. Local leaders should make school facilities a municipal concern, rather than leaving it to school district officials. States and municipalities should consider at least three options for professional, third-party management of the public education facilities portfolio: real estate trusts; municipal construction authorities; and contracts with nonprofit corporations.
The transition to new modes of ownership and financing will take time—but there is no excuse for inaction on facilities inequities, even within the current legal framework.