Over the past two years, public education has been turned on its head. Enrollment in district schools has taken a nosedive, while charter school enrollment is on the rise. One thing that hasn’t changed? Charter schools still have extremely limited access to facilities.
The General Accountability Office (GAO), a non-partisan office of Congress, recently released their study on charter schools’ ability to locate and secure facilities. No surprises here, they found there is not near adequate funding for charter schools to build and maintain proper facilities.
Make District Buildings Available to All Public Schools
The GAO report supports our findings that school districts could do a much better job of making available school buildings available to more public school students. The report highlighted a school could not grow its middle school programs because they did not have enough space—even though the district had a suitable facility available. The report noted that school districts will sometimes designate extra facilities as “swing space” rather than make them available to charter schools.
Help All Public Schools Access Affordable Facilities
We know that charter schools are often forced to acquire private loans with high interest rates in order to access school buildings. In the GAO report, they cite a school district that specifically chose to exclude charter schools from a $50 million bond measure.
What does that look like in practice? A bond offering for a charter school might be 4%, but the neighboring school district was able to borrow money at less than half that interest rate at 2%. In that scenario, one public school is paying hundreds of thousands of dollars more in interest—money that could’ve been better invested directly into the classroom.
Federal Programs Are Falling Short
On the federal side, the report highlights how inadequately federal programs support charter schools’ access to facilities. One grant, the State Facility Incentive Grant, funded about 20 schools in California each year from 2018-2020. This pales in comparison to the 1,300+ charter schools in California. This federal grant was awarded to only one state and funded less than 2% of the total number of charter schools in the state.
The federal Credit Enhancement for Charter School Facilities Program provided $293 million to support charter schools borrowing from 2009-20. However, charter schools have borrowed at least $30 billion over that timeframe, or 100x the amount of the federal support.
There is a need for millions of dollars in more facility funding support at the federal and state level—and the more we help public schools access buildings means those schools can devote more of their own resources into the classroom.
Up until the last couple weeks, there was the potential for more federal resources to become available for facilities. For the last three years, the National Alliance has been working to ensure that charter schools receive equitable funding in Virginia Congressman Bobby Scott’s Rebuild America’s Schools Act, which proposes direct grants and bonds for school facilities, including charter schools.
Congress’s Build Back Better legislation included $83 billion for direct grants in school construction, but that funding was recently jettisoned due to disagreements in the overall bill’s funding amount amongst members of Congress. While this is disappointing, Build Back Better may still include more resources—through New Markets Tax Credits. Even with an increase for New Markets Tax Credits, there is still much work to do to ensure that charter schools are treated equitably and have access to the facilities they need—and that’s why charter school facility funding and access are some of our top priorities at the National Alliance.
Kim McCabe is the senior director of communications at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.