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Charter Schools Facilities Funding

October 14, 2012

Last week, legislators held a joint House/Senate interim study on charter school funding. Specifically, they talked about how the high cost of facilities held back the expansion of charters in this state. The AP has a good write up of the meeting here.

Two of the speakers invited to the meeting gave presentations to which I will link. The first, Chris Brewster, is the superintendent of Santa Fe Charter School and president of the Oklahoma Charter Schools Association. The second, Jim Griffin, is president of the Colorado League of Charter schools and an advocate for charter schools with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

Brewster’s presentation focuses on the funding disparity between charter schools in Oklahoma and their traditional counterparts. He mentiones statutes prohibiting charter schools from issuing bonds, levying taxes, and carrying debts. Since these are the revenue sources of public schools needing to build facilities (note: see every suburban school district in Oklahoma), charter schools must turn to private donors to help them acquire facilities.

Griffin’s presentation paints the national picture relative to charter school facilities funding. The key finding is that charter schools spend an average of 14% of their operating revenue on facilities. However, for charters using district-owned space, that drops considerably – to 2%. He concludes by suggesting policy tools that have been adopted in other states: access to vacant public space; access to local property tax revenue; state grant programs; financing conduits; and credit tools.

One fact that emerges from this study is that charters and traditional public schools do not operate under the same set of rules. This is true with regard to class size restrictions, adherence to the teacher salary scale, student selection, and yes – funding for facilities. At the same time, there are school districts in this state that haven’t passed a bond issue in decades. For some, even if they did, the revenue that could be generated would not be enough to add to or significantly improve a campus. Try upgrading a WPA-vintage building in rural Oklahoma to meet all the technology standards required in the Oklahoma testing program – especially when you can’t even pass a bond issue to pay for the technology.

Overlay these issues against the coming push for a Parent Trigger law – a movement designed to enable parents to more or less sell their school to the highest bidder – and the need for a solution is even clearer. The answer will not come from within; we know Oklahoma will not innovate in terms of policy. The playbook isn’t clear at this time, but it will likely come from the shelves of the NAPCS.

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