Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine and the new state legislature can score a major win for educational equality and opportunity by providing more funding for public charter school facilities.
A 2015of Ohio charter schools funded by the U.S. Department of Education and conducted by the Charter School Facilities Initiative found that more than half of respondents’ schools are located in buildings that weren’t designed to be schools. Many of these facilities lack basic school features such as cafeterias, nurse’s offices, or science labs. A third of Ohio charter schools report having no outside space at all for playgrounds or athletic fields.
As with most education disparities, such deficiencies affect poor and minority students most. Theof Ohio’s brick-and-mortar charter schools are located in the state’s big eight urban cities, serving primarily black and Hispanic students. Despite the challenges around finding and paying for good learning spaces, low-income, black charter school students in Cleveland are on average than their district peers.
It’s this success — along with qualities like safety, innovation, and more time in class — that make charter schools so popular among parents. But while successful charter schools would like to expand to serve more students, the challenge of affording classroom space is the biggest hurdle holding them back.
The Ohio legislature has taken some steps to address the problem, but so far they’re inadequate. Charter schools currently receive just $200 per pupil for obtaining and maintaining school buildings. But they spend an average of $785 per pupil, an amount comparable to what districts spend. The difference is made up with funds from charters’ operating budgets — money that should be spent on teachers, books, and other critical student supports.
Ohio’s Community School Classroom Facility program enacted more than three years ago also provided a much-needed $25 million in facility grants for high-performing charter schools. This smart, innovative effort to help Ohio’s best charter schools expand is the right idea. Unfortunately, when the construction of a new school can cost upwards of $10 million, it’s too limited to assist with the growth of even the strongest schools like those in.
By contrast, the capital budget passed last year lavishes districts with $600 million in facilities funding over the next two years. Charter schools cannot access these funds. Some districts also have inventories of unused school buildings that taxpayers have already paid for. And when it’s necessary to construct a new building or renovate an existing one, school districts can ask local voters to contribute more in taxes. Cleveland’s top charter schools receive a small portion of taxes approved for the city’s public schools, but the charter schools can’t determine the amount, and the funds aren’t designated for facilities.
Fixing this problem will require action in Columbus and in Washington, D.C. One of the top priorities for DeWine and the legislature should be to increase the paltry $200 per-pupil facilities allotment that charter schools receive. Doubling the current payment, so that it more closely matches actual facility costs, would be a good start.
And while charter schools have the right of first refusal to buy or lease closed or underused public-school buildings, many districts don’t make these facilities available. The state should enforce the law that any unused school building should be made available to charters rather than sit vacant.
Hopefully, Ohio won’t have to go it alone in addressing charter school facility needs. Opportunity Zone tax incentives that were enacted in the federal tax reform law provide a way to leverage private capital to build new schools in many of the neighborhoods where students desperately need more high-quality options. Ohio has designated 320 tracts as Opportunity Zones.
And now with Democrats in control of the U.S. House, increased infrastructure spending may offer an opportunity for Democrats and President Donald Trump to work together. If school construction is included in an infrastructure bill, charter schools should have equal access to those funds. Congress should also strengthen other federal programs that help charter schools access credit markets on terms closer to those that district schools enjoy.
Together, the state and federal governments can give more students access to good public schools by helping charter schools secure facilities made for learning. This would be an easy win for the new governor and legislators looking to demonstrate their commitment to Ohio’s students, particularly its neediest ones. In a time of great political polarization, it would prove that Democrats and Republicans can work together to achieve worthy goals.
This piece originally appeared asin the Cleveland Plain Dealer.