Charter schools need state help for facilities

info@islandpacket.comNovember 29, 2013 

The state's charter schools have long struggled to find appropriate and affordable school buildings.

While charter school organizers are not required to include cafeterias, gyms and other traditional elements in their school buildings, the facilities must be handicapped accessible, include sprinkler systems and meet many other safety regulations the same as traditional public schools.

But charter schools lack the means to raise money for facilities. They cannot sell bonds and do not receive any funds for capital costs.

The result: Charter school dollars meant for the classroom end up paying for rent, utilities and maintenance of buildings. That inevitably thwarts the innovation and creativity charter schools are meant to foster.

A new report by the Public Charter School Alliance of South Carolina, along with the Colorado League of Charter Schools and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, reaffirms the long-standing problem. In South Carolina, more than 70 percent of public charter schools spend operating dollars on facilities, according to the new report.

If South Carolina is serious about growing its ranks of charter schools, as many state leaders claim, then it should provide access to funding for facilities.

Charter schools should not be treated the same as traditional public schools when it comes to funding. These two types of schools, while both public, are meant to be different.

Specifically, charter schools are free of many state rules and requirements in the hope that they will better meet the needs of subgroups of students and find new ways of educating them. By their very nature, charter schools are experimental, creative -- and susceptible to failure.

The state cannot responsibly fund them as the same level as their traditional counterparts that must educate all students that walk in their doors and provide a range of programs and services.

Instead, a different kind of funding mechanism is needed. One idea worthy of additional consideration is a revolving loan fund charter schools could access for purchasing school buildings and renovating them.

South Carolina already has a Charter School Facility Revolving Loan Program, but it has not received any funding to date. Utah and a few other states rely on such program so their charter schools can construct, renovate and purchase facilities.

If South Carolina funds its loan program, it must be structured in such a way that participating charter schools have "skin in the game" and cannot simply walk away without repaying the money if the school fails.

Another worthy idea: encouraging school districts to make empty school facilities available to nearby charter schools. Currently, state law requires districts to give charter schools first right of refusal to purchase or lease vacant/surplus buildings under the same terms as would be offered to the public.

This law could be strengthened to allow the facilities to be rented for a reduce price by organizers working to start a charter school. Also, high-performing charter schools, in need of additional facilities so they can expand, could be offered the space at a reduced rate.

Other states offer myriad ideas on how to help charter schools secure appropriate school buildings. South Carolina should start small with a revolving loan program and new partnerships between traditional schools and charter schools. As the number of high-achieving charter schools grow, the state could consider additional funding options.

In a state that has historically struggled with student achievement, the innovation and out-of-the-box thinking that charter schools offer is a worthy state investment.

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