Have school. Need building.
A crisis over housing new charter schools could make or break thecharter experiment.
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Inadequate facilities ranked among the top three barriers cited by charter operators in the US Department of Education's 1998 nationwide survey of charter schools, just behind lack of start-up funds and inadequate operating funds, which are related issues.Skip to next paragraph
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High costs limits startups
Charter supporters say the high cost of facilities is putting an artificial cap on the number of new charter schools, and that more public resources are needed.
"One could make the case that this is the classic example of not giving the charter idea a fair test: Charter school opponents couldn't stop the law from passing, so they try to hamstring charters in every way they can," says Bruno Manno, a senior fellow with the Baltimore-based Annie E. Casey Foundation, who consults with charter schools.
"Most surveys show that parents choose a charter for educational reasons, and are satisfied," he adds. "But the top reason for parent dissatisfaction is related to facilities. You're forced to skimp on everything else, because you don't get [funding for] capital expenses."
Some charters are making headway with creative new solutions. "We've made five loans to charter schools, all related to facilities and start-up costs," says Karen O'Mansky, a program associate for Self-Help, a Durham, N.C.-based community-development group. Self-Help was the first institution to use US Department of Agriculture loan guarantees to support charters in rural areas.
"Charter schools don't necessarily need the big building with the big football field. But in smaller rural towns, there may be no facilities; or in other places, the rent may be too high. You can be creative, with schools in storefronts or in modular units, but you still need some money to make it work," she adds.
A key source of facilities for start-up charters could be existing public-school buildings. The District of Columbia has more than 50 vacant school buildings, and a 1995 federal law mandates a preference for charter schools in the use of such buildings. Eight of the 19 charter schools in the District have leased space through this process.
But even with a strong law on the books, relations have been strained between the District's school administrators and charters created as an alternative to traditional public schools.
"We realized early on that nobody was paying any attention to the facilities needs of charter schools, so we organized a charter school coalition to try to get something done," says Lex Towle, managing director of AppleTree Institute, a nonprofit that has provided space and management support for start-ups.
Nonetheless, delays in lease or purchase agreements have added months and, in one case, more than $1 million to the cost of renovating space. One charter got access to its facility in a former District public school eight days before school opened, only to find that the plumbing and kitchen equipment had been stolen. Purchase negotiations on two buildings that could serve as hubs for charter start-ups and expansions are heading into a second year.
Meanwhile, Cesar Chavez principal Salcido says that she hasn't yet applied to rent space with the D.C. public schools because of the "torment" she'd seen her charter colleagues go through.
"The process has slowed to a halt," says Malcolm Peabody, chairman of Friends of Choice and Urban Schools, a nonprofit group that helps charter start-ups.
"The whole concept of the charter law is competition, and we don't blame them for looking over their shoulder, but we just want a fair fight. When they have a choke hold on facilities, that's not right. The system is pitting [decent people] against each other in ways that are not healthy," he adds.
But District officials insist that delays don't equal obstruction. "We've been pretty liberal in trying to find space for charter schools," says Joseph Carrillo, associate superintendent for policy and planning. "Our Realty Office has had turnover. People can construe that as a mixed signal to charter groups that want to lease property, but it shouldn't be construed that way.... We need to look to the needs of the system as we see them."
*Send e-mail comments to chaddockg @csps.com