Innovations in Education: Making Charter School Facilities More Affordable: State-driven Policy Approaches
December 2008
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Policy Considerations Regarding Provision of Facilities

Respondents to interviews conducted for this guide shared several suggestions for improving current laws and regulations on district provision of facilities to charter schools, as well as reflections on such policies enacted to date. These may be useful for policymakers to consider.

Consider implementation challenges of mandates. How to enforce mandates related to districts providing facilities for charter schools is an important policy consideration. Caprice Young maintains that, when it comes to asserting that charter schools have the same right to facilities as traditional public schools, California is ahead of the curve, having put it on the public record via Proposition 39 vote in 2000. Enforcing this right is another issue, however. If the law were enforced, she maintains, 100 percent of the state's charter schools would be located in district facilities, unless, for some reason, they chose not to be. It also has been challenging to implement the first-offer right to bid on excess DCPS facilities, even though this right technically has been granted to Washington, D.C., charter schools.

Emphasize equity concerns. Young advises that efforts to inform policymakers of the need to provide charter schools with facilities should start with the premise of equity—that charter schools are public schools and, thus, their students have the same right to a safe, appropriate facility as any other public school student. From her standpoint, this position emphasizing resource inequities is the most effective legal strategy and could, potentially, lead to civil rights litigation. Robert Cane, of FOCUS, puts it this way: "Until people and politicians think of charter schools as being public schools—really being public schools, instead of just 'competition for the public schools'—I don't think things are going to get any better" To increase public awareness on this issue, FOCUS has adopted the strategy of bringing charter school parents and students to public meetings to talk about how the facilities challenge affects them. In essence, Cane says, FOCUS has created a public relations campaign "trying to get people to understand that there is a good reason for equity."

Legislation Does Not Guarantee Smooth Implementation Rocklin Academy, Rocklin, Calif.

In California, Proposition 39 requires school districts to provide charter schools with facilities that are sufficient in size and reasonably equivalent to other public schools. Still, charter schools' facility requirements frequently do not match what districts have or want to offer. Opened in 2001, Rocklin Academy was one of the first charter schools to use Proposition 39 to obtain district facilities and, like many other schools, it ran into substantial obstacles along the way.

Rocklin Academy originally planned to open as a K-3 school, but had to change its grade configuration when the local district, Rocklin Unified School District (RUSD), gave it space in a middle school that was not age-appropriate for younger students. To utilize the facility it was given, Rocklin Academy changed its plans, opening instead with students in grades 3-6, with plans to add grades over time. Even so, Rocklin Academy paid in excess of $100,000 for reconstruction and changes to portable buildings, including payment for administrative offices and bathrooms.

After two years, the RUSD moved Rocklin Academy. The charter school had been growing into a K-8 school, but RUSD moved it to a relatively new and underutilized K-6 school site that had available classroom space. Here again, the grade span of the available facility did not match the grade span planned by the charter school. To use the space it was given, Rocklin Academy had to disenroll its seventh-grade students and forestall its planned eighth-grade expansion—a setback that left the school's administrators, families, and other stakeholders deeply frustrated.

After a protracted period of negotiation, in order to avoid litigation, both sides consented to a 10-year agreement. Rocklin Academy now has space in two district facilities, each of which will house a K-6 program, since neither space had enough room to accommodate the entire student body of the charter school. The agreement also allows Rocklin's operators to apply later for space to serve students in grades 7-12. As part of its agreement with the district, Rocklin Academy paid the costs of moving and shares the ongoing costs of maintenance, utilities, and janitorial costs at the two sites. In total, Rocklin Academy is using roughly 10 percent of its revenue stream to pay for use of district facilities, or approximately $550 per student. David Patterson, founder and executive director of Rocklin Academy, considers both facilities to be "excellent" and feels that both the school and the district have worked hard to reach an agreement that is "fair in terms of cost and services."

Echoing the views expressed by other charter advocates in California, Patterson believes that Proposition 39 is "terribly underutilized." One problem, he notes, is that many people—both charter school administrators and district personnel—are unfamiliar with the intricacies of its rules and regulations. Patterson's advice to other charter school operators seeking district facilities is to learn thoroughly the relevant laws and regulations and to plan on committing substantial time to educating district counterparts on those topics.

Rocklin Academy: Selected Statistics

Source: DataQuest system, California Department of Education for the 2006-07 school year.

Year Opened Grade Levels Number of Students Number of Campuses Student Ethnicity Special Education Free and Reduced-Price Lunch
2001 K-6 362 2 67% White
10% Asian American
8% Hispanic
4% 2%

Call attention to economic interests. Another tack being used by FOCUS is to convince the city government (i.e., the District) that public money is being wasted when vacant DCPS facilities are not offered to charter schools. Their argument, Cane explains, is that the city must expend funds in the per-pupil facilities allowance that has been granted to charter schools and that charter schools, in turn, often have little choice but to use those funds to acquire commercial real estate that, as a result, becomes tax-exempt. Were charter schools instead able to make lease payments to the District, the commercial property would likely continue to yield tax payments to the city. In addition, Young makes the argument that the notion of a school district owning its school buildings is a fallacy; in reality, she says, because public school buildings are financed with tax dollars, they belong to the community.

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Last Modified: 02/05/2009