Study Finds Charter School Facility Funding Lags Far Behind Districts

January 28, 2013
Dominic Slowey
(781) 710-0014

 

BOSTON, MA, January 28, 2013 – Charter public schools are recognized as the state’s best tool to close race and income-based achievement gaps, but state policies put them at a disadvantage compared to district public schools when it comes to obtaining and financing facilities, according to a new study “An Analysis of the Charter School Facility Landscape in Massachusetts.”

As a result of inequitable state funding streams and roadblocks set up by cities and towns to prevent charter operators from buying or leasing vacant municipal buildings, charters must borrow hundreds of millions of dollars in the private market, raise funds from donors and parents, and reallocate operating funds that should be going to support educational programming.

The study’s authors call for the state to “level the playing field” by providing more financial support for charter facilities and requiring municipalities to provide charters with opportunities to purchase or lease unused public buildings. The study was co-authored by the Colorado League of Charter Schools and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. The groups conducted an extensive survey of 90% of the Commonwealth charters in Massachusetts, measuring classrooms, assessing building conditions and analyzing how facilities are financed.

Under the Massachusetts School Building Authority program, districts schools receive subsidies ranging from 31% to 80% of the total cost of new building or major renovation projects. Since 2008, the Authority has allocated $2.4 billion in facility assistance to districts.  Charter schools have not received any of these state funds.

The report found that charters spend an average of $1,235 per pupil on facilities. The state provides charters with an annual facilities stipend of $893 per pupil, but the resulting gap causes charters to allocate an average of 3% of their educational budgets above and beyond the state subsidy to cover facility costs.

With more than 29,000 students currently enrolled in charters and more than 45,000 on waiting lists, demand for charter public schools is strong.  To help meet that demand, 78% of charter schools plan to seek state approval to increase their enrollment by 2016. But two-thirds of those schools currently lack the space to accommodate these increases. More than 40% of charters are planning to construct or acquire more space in the next five years.

“By ensuring facilities equity for all Massachusetts public schools, charter schools could widen programming options, increase the quality of the educational experience for students, and increase the number of seats available to waitlisted students,” the study states.

Among the study’s recommendations is that charter public schools’ annual per-pupil facilities allocation be raised to reflect district schools’ actual capital costs.  When the facility support was first established in fiscal year 2005, it was intended to keep pace with district capital expenditures, but the allocation has not been increased since 2008.

The study also recommends that charters be given right of first refusal to purchase closed, unused or under-used district facilities or property at or below fair market value.

Legislation recently filed by Sen. Barry Finegold (D-Andover) and Rep. Russell Holmes (D-Mattapan) would address some of these concerns, and the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association (MCPSA) intends to push for an increase in state facility support in the upcoming state budget process.

“Facilities funding has long been among the biggest challenges Massachusetts charters face,” said MCPSA Chair Jed Lippard, Executive Director of Prospect Hill Academy Charter Public School in Somerville and Cambridge. “Despite the creative approaches many charters have taken, we often find ourselves in less-than-ideal buildings and are forced to reallocate educational programming funds to finance facilities.”

Over the past five years, 61% of charters have undertaken a major capital project, spending $239 million on renovations, repairs, additions to existing facilities and new land or building purchases. More than 80% of those schools used operating funds to help finance the projects.

More than two-thirds of charter operators currently lease their buildings, putting funds into rent payments that bring them no closer to owning their own school buildings.

More than half the charters surveyed are located in facilities that are at least 20 percent smaller than educational standards, the survey showed.  As a result, charters are less likely to have specialized instructional spaces such as libraries, science labs art or music rooms than are district schools.

Fifty-four percent of charter public school students qualify for free or reduced-price meals, compared to 35.2 percent of public school students statewide, but 80 of the charters surveyed do not have facilities to prepare meals onsite.  As a result, charters must pursue other options, like outside catering, that are often far more expensive than federal reimbursement rates.

Ninety percent of Commonwealth charter public schools responded to the survey, which is based on data from the 2010-11 school year.  Horace Mann, or “in-district” charters were not included because they have access to district facilities funding.

The report was commissioned by the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association (MCPSA), and can be found at www.masscharterschools.org.

The report was commissioned by the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association (MCPSA), and can be found here.

 

 

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