October 16, 2023
Tennessee is currently home to more than 100 public charter schools serving a diverse population that exceeds 40,000 students. Many of these schools continue to put up impressive achievement and growth numbers when compared to similar traditional public schools.
In a recent study by Stanford University, 36 percent of Tennessee public charter schools outperformed their local district schools in both reading and English language arts growth. These numbers are almost miraculous considering the numerous challenges charter operators face—challenges their traditional counterparts are spared from facing.
Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools have a substantial burden to come up with funding for facility needs, including new construction, leasing and purchasing, and maintenance. While traditional public schools get designated state funding for these expenditures, charter schools only receive a direct payment to cover operating expenses. This funding only covers about half of charter schools’ facility needs.
As a result, public charter schools must appropriate large portions of their operating budgets towards rent, debt service, and often desperately needed renovations. Worse yet, this funding gap is expected to widen ten percent by 2028.
What does this mean? Every dollar that public charter schools must divert to facility costs diminishes the ability to focus on providing high-quality instruction to students. This translates to fewer teachers, undersupplied classrooms, and reduced access to effective learning aids.
As the funding gap continues to widen, students across the state risk going to school every day in a severely degraded learning environment.
Fortunately, the state has a bevy of solutions to address this growing crisis. Most notably, lawmakers can provide public charter schools with greater access to vacant and underutilized district facilities.
Current law only requires districts to catalog vacant and underutilized facilities and make them available to charter operators, without providing any prescriptions for lease or purchase agreements or properly defining key terms. Without clear guidelines, facilities could be miscatalogued and districts lack any template for property transactions with public charter schools. The result is that charter operators are often forced to locate in formerly commercial spaces ill-suited for educational purposes even when better options may be available.
By giving charters priority access to vacant and underutilized district facilities at fair market value, the state can help ensure public charter school students have access to the same quality facilities enjoyed by their traditional public school counterparts at no cost.
School facilities are a public good meant to serve an intended purpose. Sadly, many surplus facilities currently lie vacant or underutilized when public charter schools could make better use of them. Unless districts have a well-defined roadmap for making these facilities available to public charter schools, this inefficiency will continue, and thousands of students will be on the losing end.
How many teachers should charter schools make do without, to offset their rent? How many more students must go to school in crumbling strip malls before something changes?