So you've got a great idea on how to educate kids. You write up a plan, get it approved, line up teachers, students, a governing board, and a strong curriculum, and you're on your way to becoming a successful new charter school. Right?
Well, not quite. You're going to need a roof and four walls that will pass local fire codes and not break the budget. If you manage to find a place you can afford this year, you'll need one twice as big the next, when the first class moves up and the new kids need a place to sit.
The facilities crisis could make or break America's charter-school experiment, activists say. Many charters - public schools that are allowed to operate relatively independently - can't solve the building problem, and thus never open despite having been approved. For others, the struggle for facilities is a big drain on time and resources that could affect the success of the venture down the line.
Where will I be next year?
"I don't know where I am going to be next year, I don't," says Irasema Salcido, principal of the Cesar Chavez Public Policy Charter High School, which opened in Washington last fall. Her first class of 60 ninth-graders spent their initial weeks of school working around boxes in a basement as they waited for classrooms to be created in abandoned government offices. With a new class on the way next year, she needs to find a bigger space, and there are few prospects in sight.
"Here I am trying to offer them an education, and I don't see why it has to be so difficult. My kids ... are from here, from the District, and they're attending a public school, and they should be provided with a place to learn just like any other public school student," she adds. "I should be focusing on what we'll be teaching them next year and recruiting my new teachers, but in the back of my mind I keep thinking, 'What is going to happen?' "
No funds to build or buy
Despite these problems, Mrs. Salcido has more support on this issue than most other charter schools nationally. While 34 states and the District of Columbia have laws that provide funds for public charter schools, only four states -Arizona, Florida, Massachusetts, and Minnesota - and the District include any funding to cover facility costs. Moreover, the District is required by law to grant priority to charter schools in determining what to do with unused school buildings - a proposition that other states have barely considered.
But the facilities problem is also driving charters to break new ground, which was the original purpose for the charter-school experiment. For example:
*Boston's City on a Hill charter school rents space in the local YMCA and has arranged to have students use library facilities at nearby Northeastern University.
*The George I. Sanchez school in Houston opened with 15 students in an old muffler warehouse and is now building a $3.1 million multipurpose center designed to meet both educational and community needs.
*In the District, charters are meeting in a children's museum, remodeled townhouses, a shopping mall, church basements, and in unused classrooms leased from traditional public schools.
"Charter schools have to get really creative with their facilities to solve this problem. As a result, you see charters redefining what a school is," says Bryan Hassel, co-founder of Public Impact, a North Carolina-based education-policy firm.
"Instead of a facility that has to have a gym, cafeteria, or parking lot, they are saying what we really need is instructional space, and working out relationships with museums, libraries, universities, parks for the rest," he adds.
But he cautions that there is still a need to strike a balance between the creativity at the heart of the charter venture and the public support needed to make it viable.
"While charter-school operators have been creative in finding and paying for space, too many precious resources have been diverted from the classroom, and too little public and community-level investment has been made in meeting the long-term facilities needs of this important aspect of state-based education reform," he writes in a January 1999 report for the Charter Friends National Network, a St. Paul, Minn.-based group.
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.
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