Whose School Buildings Are They, Anyway?

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A couple of years ago, in a speech at the National Charter Schools Conference in Chicago, I said it was time to break the traditional district monopoly on public school facilities. The audience’s response was really strong – confirming that this was an issue whose time had come.

Two decades ago the charter movement began dismantling districts’ “sole proprietorship” on academic offerings; yet today, public charter schools still have to beg for access to school buildings bought and paid for with tax dollars. We’ve managed to win a facilities allowance here and co-location there, but still enjoy no fundamental right to public school space – nor an adequate supply of public funding with which to build our own.

So it’s time to reframe this issue. School facilities should be a municipality-wide concern, not just the province of the traditional district. And some impartial entity (a mayor, a real estate trust, a municipal building corporation) should manage the building stock on behalf of all the kids, not just those in district schools. That’s the point of my new report, An Accident of History.

It was fun tracing the roots of this dilemma way back – to 1642, in fact – and then looking at a variety of solutions for creating a more equitable way of financing, developing, and deploying public education facilities. The title really makes the central point – that the laws and policies governing public school facilities wouldn’t resemble their current shape had there been charter schools (or substantial numbers of other public non-district schools) when they were written.

Education Next is also running an article drawn from the report. I’m hoping that readers of this blog will ask mayors, school boards, and lawmakers the question its title poses: Whose School Buildings Are They, Anyway?

And I’m really looking forward to your comments, questions and disputations. Let’s get this argument started!

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Nelson Smith is a consultant on education policy and former president and CEO of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

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