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Charter schools like to fight, not with school districts or opponents of education reform but for their students. They fight and advocate for the ability to open schools with quality facilities that move kids from wait lists into classrooms. They fight to persuade the people who authorize charter schools to welcome them and view them as valuable assets, not as competitors to be feared.
Unfortunately, a charter school’s biggest fight is often with the real estate market and local zoning laws to find a suitable and affordable school facility. The San Diego City Council recently eliminated the need to get special permission, through a conditional use permit, in certain zones to open a charter serving 300 students or fewer. This is a great step toward making school facilities more accessible for charters. But the hurdle still needs to be knocked down for charters serving more than 300 students or that are located in zones not subject to the regulation change.
After the passage of the Charter Schools Act in 1992, the number of schools in California has grown from a handful to more than 1,230 serving 581,000 students. This organic growth was in response to a demand from families to receive educational options they viewed charter schools as offering.
School districts often secure the approval of local voters for school bond measures. The repayment of school bond proceeds are backed by property taxes, which makes them a very low-risk investment that comes with low borrowing costs for districts. Districts have also obtained billions of dollars in funding from the state bond program, and receive school impact fees from real estate developers. Also, districts have the right of eminent domain and can acquire land even when there is little to no inventory. People often take it for granted when their local school district builds a new facility.
For many charter schools, the facilities story is different and complex. Charters are left to their own devices to find land, negotiate the purchase and develop a site into a usable school facility. For example, some schools are located in unconventional locations like commercial properties if they are unable to find a traditional school facility. Thus, educators are forced to become real-estate experts. Even if a charter school can locate a facility that meets its size, location and other operational needs, overhead costs are high. On average, charters that own their facilities spend over 15 percent of their revenue, or roughly $1,200 per student per year, of general revenue on their facility. The costs of finding a school site location and facilities to educate charter students is high – accounting for different variables, a facility to serve 500 students could incur a total project cost in the $12 million to $15 million range.
A long and difficult local permitting process inflates these costs. District projects are exempt from this process under state law. Without exception, charters would much rather spend this money and effort in the classroom on student instruction rather than on construction.
And although charter facilities are expensive to develop, those costs are low compared with what school districts typically pay to build a school. A 2008 study commissioned by California’s Office of Public School Construction found that the average new district school in the San Diego region cost more than $26 million to build. And again, school districts have access to funding mechanisms not available to charters to pay those costs.
Charters do have access to some public funding sources to pay facilities costs. For example, the state-run Charter School Facility Grant Program reimburses charter schools for up to 75 percent of their yearly private facilities costs, but only 30 percent of charter schools were eligible for the program last year. Other, less widely available funding sources include the Charter School Facilities Program, and a few federal finance programs.
In some places like San Diego, local bond programs operated by districts provide funding to charter schools. Under Proposition Z, charters and San Diego Unified School District committed to provide $350 million in funding for charter school facilities projects such as technology upgrades and planning and project grants. While important and appreciated, these sources only address a small portion of the charter school facilities need.
Providing world-class educational options for students is hard and expensive. Charter school operators are committed to doing so in entrepreneurial and innovative ways but must also have access to affordable and permanent facilities to reach their potential. State and local lawmakers and school districts can and should focus on providing these tools so that charter school leaders can focus on obtaining the most important return on investment: successful students.
John C. Sun is the chief executive of Pacific Charter School Development and Nicolas J. Watson is the senior facilities adviser for the California Charter Schools Association. Their commentary has been edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.