During the 2014-15 school year, the National Charter School Resource Center, the Colorado League of Charter Schools (the League), the Ohio Alliance for Public Charter Schools, and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools collaborated to collect data and information about charter school facilities and facilities expenditures in the state of Ohio. A recently released report, An Analysis of the Charter School Facilities Landscape in Ohio, summarizes this important research. The data collection in Ohio was supported by the Charter School Facilities Initiative (CSFI), which is a national project developed by the League to research charter school facilities and facilities expenditures across the country.
Unlike individual district public schools, charter schools are typically responsible for obtaining and paying for their own facilities. As a result, charter schools are often located in nontraditional spaces, such as office buildings, churches, strip malls, and former big box stores. In 2014-15, more than half (53 percent) of Ohio charter schools were located in facilities that were not originally designed to be a school—and locating in a nontraditional school facility often comes with significant challenges. These challenges include navigating zoning, land use, and permitting processes—as well as funding major capital improvement projects to make these spaces school ready. In fact, 30 percent of charter schools in Ohio had undertaken a major capital project in the past five years in order to renovate, upgrade, or otherwise maintain their facilities. For charter schools that undertook a major capital project, the average project cost nearly $525,000—critical funds that did not make it to the classroom.
There is an untrue perception in Ohio that a majority of charter schools obtain significant philanthropic funding to meet facility-related expenses. Less than 10 percent of charter schools reported success in generating fundraising dollars to help cover facility-related expenses. Other key findings from the report include:
- Ohio charter schools spend operating dollars on facilities and this spending varies across different ownership situations. In 2014-15, the average charter school in Ohio reported facilities expenses of $785 per full-time equivalent pupil (after accounting for facilities assistance). District-owned facilities and school-owned facilities proved to be the most economical option for Ohio charter schools.
- Few Ohio charter schools are able to utilize unused or underutilized district facilities. Only eight percent of Ohio charter schools were located in district-owned facilities. However, 18 percent of Ohio charter schools reported the presence of a nearby district facility that was significantly underutilized (30 percent or more unused capacity).
- Ohio charter schools are generally smaller than recommended guidelines. Ohio charter schools often lack specialized spaces and other facility amenities—as a result they are often smaller than comparable district public school facilities. Sixty-eight percent of Ohio charter schools did not have a dedicated music room, 65 percent did not have a dedicated library/media center, and 55 percent did not have a dedicated art room. In addition, 81 percent of Ohio charter schools serving high school students did not have a dedicated science lab.
- Physical education and recreational options may be limited for Ohio charter school students. Although the majority of Ohio charter schools (61 percent) had playgrounds for elementary students, 68 percent of Ohio charter schools did not have an athletic field on campus, and 28 percent did not have a gym on campus.
- Serving meals can be a challenge for many Ohio charter schools. Seventy-six percent of Ohio charter schools lacked a full-preparatory kitchen facility and 80 percent of Ohio charter schools had lunches brought in by outside caterers (including school districts). In addition, while 85 percent of Ohio charter schools had either a dedicated lunchroom or a multipurpose lunchroom like a cafetorium, 15 percent of charter schools had no lunchroom space at all.
Being innovative with space is a hallmark of the charter school sector. Thus, charter schools frequently utilize alternative locations to provide specialized programming across a range of curriculum areas, including art, music, science, and technology. However, for many charter schools, tailoring space exclusively for specific instructional purposes is cost prohibitive. These facilities-related deficits are particularly challenging for economically disadvantaged charter school students. In 2014-15, 76 percent of Ohio charter school students were economically disadvantaged.
Charter school students are public school students—and they deserve equitable facilities and funding. For charter schools in Ohio, attaining equitable facilities that are comparable to district public schools will require both legislative initiatives and new funding models to support acquisition and renovation related expenses. By helping charter schools meet their facilities challenges, Ohio lawmakers will enable charter schools to better serve their students by allocating more operational dollars toward core educational outcomes—rather than directing these critical funds to the continual economic demands of facility modification and improvement.