March 3, 2023
Charter schools are public schools operated by independent non-profit organizations under agreements with the state and local school districts.
On average, public charter schools serve higher percentages of minority and economically disadvantaged students than traditional district schools. For example, more than 90% of the Tennessee students attending public charter high schools are students of color and more than 80% are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.
In Tennessee, the vast majority of public charter schools are located in metropolitan areas and they frequently struggle to locate and secure school facilities that match the quality of traditional public schools. Conditions of school facilities have a direct impact on student performance, both academically and behaviorally, as well as recruitment and retention of quality teaching staff.
Non-profit organizations operating public charter schools in Tennessee face three key challenges:
Affordability. Public charter schools do not receive local capital dollars for facilities like traditional public schools. These schools must use operational dollars to meet facilities needs, diverting funds away from the classroom. Some federal and state funding is available but may not cover all facilities costs.
Availability. Public charter schools struggle to provide the same amenities (cafeteria space or playground) as traditional schools. When suitable facilities are located, private loans are difficult to secure. Additionally, renovation and real estate costs are exorbitant in metro areas, where most public charter schools are currently located.
Lack of Consistent Local Support. Non-profit operators face inconsistent assistance by local governments and school districts for charter school facility needs. Local school districts can make access to vacant and underutilized buildings extremely difficult, if not impossible.
Policy Consideration #1. More explicitly defining the term “vacant and underutilized facilities” will allow non-profit organizations the ability to petition the Comptroller’s Office for an audit of the vacant and underutilized facilities list submitted by local school districts.
Policy Consideration #2. Allowing non-profit organizations access to vacant and underutilized facilities at or below fair market value will provide at-risk students with safe facilities, appropriate for educational use and reduce renovation costs.
Implementing these two policies will help ensure all student in Tennessee have an equal opportunity to succeed.