The first time I stepped foot into my classroom at Achieve Language Academy, an independent public charter school in St. Paul, MN, I didn’t put much thought into how many factors had to align for me to be teaching in that particular classroom in that particular building. As a first-year teacher, I was consumed with developing engaging activities, aligning curriculum, getting to know the little humans who would be my students for the next three years, and, of course, decorating my classroom.
Achieve already had a long history by the time I started working there in 2011. Opening just five short years after then-Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson signed the nation’s first charter school law on June 4, 1991, Achieve is a prime example of the kind of innovative, tailored education charter schools can provide to their communities. Located on the diverse East Side of St. Paul, Achieve allows local Hmong and Latinx families to choose a bilingual education that preserves and validates their home languages. In fact, charter school laws were developed so that families could do just that: choose a school environment that meets the needs of each, individual child. Opening a new charter school is a complex process, involving years of planning and a rigorous charter application that requires leaders to think deeply about the school they wish to build. But, even after aspiring school leaders are approved for a charter, there is still one more, huge hurdle: the school building itself.
Which brings me back to that particular classroom in that particular building. Achieve Language Academy is housed in an old Catholic school building that the school leases from the adjacent church. In Minnesota, charter schools receive what is called “Lease Aid,” or facilities funding from the state. Established in 1997 to help charter schools pay for school buildings, the Lease Aid Program provides either 90% of the lease cost or $1,314 times the number of students—whichever amount is less. This leaves schools on the hook for thousands of dollars in rent which must be paid out of their general operating budget. Those are dollars that aren’t making it into classrooms. On top of that, there is no public oversight or regulation of the cost of leases and the stock of buildings appropriate for a school is limited. This means there are schools located everywhere from vacated strip malls to semi-industrial buildings.
While this process may sound complex and burdensome, the reality is that Minnesota’s Lease Aid Program is actually one of the more generous facilities programs for charter schools in the country. Only 15 states and the District of Columbia offer facility funding on a per-pupil basis, and Minnesota has one of the higher rates. Schools in other states depend on a patchwork of grants, loans, access to programs designed for district-run public schools, and local property tax dollars. Most states offer no dedicated charter school facilities funding at all. Access to affordable facilities and financing is a consistent challenge that interferes both with the opening of new schools and with the expansion and replication of existing, high-performing schools. Further, the complexity of accessing funds can be a huge drain of time and personnel resources for school leaders who are usually educators themselves.
This year, the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools released a paper, Strengthening Federal Investment in Charter Schools Facilities, exploring policy priorities to improve charter school facilities funding across the country. Recommendations include streamlining and improving existing grant and tax credit programs, creating new programs that would provide direct loans and grants, and incentives for additional state action.
I was inspired to teach by a deep commitment to equity and optimism for the next generation, and was fortunate to start my teaching career at a school that was so well-established that I was unaware of many of the challenges that face charter schools. School leaders—like teachers—work in education because of the kids. As we all seek better outcomes for our children, charter schools provide an additional public school option for families looking for something different. The complexity of finding and financing a school building, however, is a drain on the time and energy that school leaders should put into building a transformational school. The brick and mortar building should be the least of a school’s worries. Education is what happens inside the walls, not the walls themselves.
Fiona Sheridan-McIver is a Manger of Policy & Government Relations at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.