Public charter schools in Ohio have long struggled to secure adequate school facilities. Unlike traditional districts, charters are ineligible for the state’s generously funded school construction program, and they cannot levy local taxes for capital projects. Thus, while Ohioans often see news articles about gleaming new district-run schools, one would be hard-pressed to find more than a handful of ribbon-cutting stories for charters.
Because school construction is usually not financially feasible, charters sometimes look to purchase or lease a vacant district-owned building. Unfortunately, school districts have found ways to keep unused buildings out of the hands of charters—despite state laws that, on paper, give charters the right of first refusal. Back in 2010, Cincinnati Public Schools slapped a deed restriction on a vacant facility to avoid selling it to a charter school (the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that move illegal). And in 2020, Columbus City Schools refused to sell an unused building to one of the city’s top performing charter school networks in what appeared to be a direct violation of state law. District officials claimed they had plans for the facility and weren’t required to sell it. Interestingly, however, the building still sits vacant and in district possession.
In a more recent case, we discover yet another illustration of districts’ anti-charter bias, this time from Eastern Ohio. Salem City Schools is currently embarking on a school construction project that will allow it to consolidate elementary schools and thus vacate an existing building. Under state law, the district would need to offer the facility for purchase or lease to a charter school. But when asked if that might be a possibility, the superintendent was adamant that he’d find a workaround to ensure that the building doesn’t end up in the hands of the competition, either by repurposing it or even tearing it down. For some, the demolition tactic might sound familiar. More than a decade ago, Cleveland Metropolitan School District razed a building in an apparent effort to keep it away from charter schools.
Unfortunately, from a recent spate of news articles, it appears that school districts aren’t the only ones standing in the way of charters seeking facilities. Consider the following stories of local municipal officials blocking charters’ facility plans.
- In Southwest Ohio, Miami Township has stalled an effort by Cincinnati Classical Academy to purchase a vacant commercial property that would be home to its fast-growing school. Launched in fall 2022, the school has seen incredible demand—it’s already up to 600 students this year—and is quickly outgrowing its current facility. Unfortunately, municipal officials rejected on dubious grounds the school’s request for a zoning change to repurpose the facility for educational uses, and the matter is now pending in the county courts.
- In Northeast Ohio, the Toledo city council squashed a proposal by the L. Hollingworth School for the Talented and Gifted to transform a nearby vacant law office into a daycare and preschool. The school needed to obtain a special permit to do this, but the council inexplicably denied it. School leader Terrence Franklin told the Toledo Blade, “We hope that we’re not being singled out and treated unfairly because of something else.... It feels like something is going on there.” The Blade editorial board was more blunt: “Possibly, Toledo City Council harbors opposition to charter schools, of which the Hollingworth school is one.”
- In Central Ohio, the Westerville planning commission members turned down a request to repurpose empty office space into a charter school, even though commission staff recommended approval (with some conditions) and noted that a nearby property was used for a private school. It’s unclear what has happened since then, but the building remains empty. In nearby Hilliard, the zoning commission heard a proposal from a Pennsylvania-based charter network looking to purchase a former call center to locate a school. City officials raised enough concerns that the group withdrew its application.
To be sure, school district and municipal officials have at times supported charter schools. In 2015, Cleveland agreed to lease one of its buildings to the Breakthrough network of charters. Two years later, Columbus City Schools sold two buildings to the Graham charter network. Meanwhile, the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority has issued tax-exempt bonds on behalf of the Toledo School for the Arts to support the renovation and expansion of its facility.
But these stories seem to be more exception than rule. That’s disappointing, as Ohio charter schools are serving communities, parents, and students well. The most recent rigorous evaluation of the sector indicates that students attending brick-and-mortar charters outperform their district counterparts. The state’s best charter schools open doors for low-income students in their communities to attend college or pursue professional training. Instead of giving charters the runaround, local officials should be looking to support educational institutions that improve the lives of their citizens.