NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Whose School Buildings Are They, Anyway?

October 25, 2012

At one time, school districts had a monopoly on public education programs and infrastructure. Today, that monopoly is being challenged by the rise of charter schools. Charter schools represent the market at work, as these institutions provide better quality education and competition to school districts, says Nelson Smith, a consultant on education policy and public charter schooling.

  • Charter schools have become large schools with extensive networks in the public education system.
  • The number of students in charter schools has grown, comprising 4.2 percent of public school students nationwide.
  • And in six major school districts at least 30 percent of public school students are enrolled in charter schools.

However, public schools are still the only game in town when it comes to financing, developing and deploying public school buildings. Only 17 states provide some sort of direct aid for charter school facilities, whereas states give capital support to traditional school districts.

Moreover, charter schools are denied access to existing school buildings that are no longer being used by the school district. This is for a couple of reasons:

  • First, laws governing school facilities were established before charter schools existed, and therefore made school districts the sole proprietors.
  • Second, there is a general unwillingness from officials to help charter schools out when they can find other buyers.

Slowly, school districts are beginning to become more cooperative with charter schools. In New York, for example, three-quarters of charter schools are located in district facilities.

As popularity of charter schools grow, city and state officials should take actions to ensure that students have access to facilities. Municipal leaders should be given authority to dispose of surplus schools to charter schools first, either for sale or at lease for no cost. And if there is no surplus, a third-party building should be commissioned to determine whether there is excess space.

There are a few management models to manage public school facilities portfolios.

  • First, create a real-estate trust that assumes ownership of a community's public school buildings, and has the authority to sell surplus buildings and build additional buildings.
  • Second, retrofit the Construction Authority to finance, build and oversee public schools.
  • Third, expand charter-based models to allow municipalities to contract with nonprofits to take over and manage the entire school facilities process.

Source: Nelson Smith, "Whose School Buildings Are They, Anyway?" Education Next, Vol.12, No. 4, Fall 2012.


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