Idaho’s public charter schools struggle to find and fund facilities

December 13, 2016
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Idaho Statesman
December 13, 2016

Idaho’s public charter schools are among the state’s top-performing schools on both state achievement tests and the SAT. There are about 6,000 students on charter waiting lists statewide, and by 2022 Idaho will add approximately 22,000 new K-12 public school students. Charter schools can help meet the demand for high-quality education in Idaho, but they need help from state lawmakers in finding and funding facilities.

A new report by Bellwether Education Partners surveyed leaders in 26 of Idaho’s 40 brick-and-mortar charter schools. They asked about facilities-related expenditures, whether schools have amenities such as gyms and libraries, and collected data points on square footage and seat capacity of schools’ current facilities. They also asked charter leaders about the impact facilities-related challenges have on their operations.

The vast majority of these leaders reported that they struggle finding property suitable for their school, have difficulty financing property when they do find it, and often must make significant tradeoffs.

Despite the financial constraints, charter leaders are extraordinarily creative and resourceful in finding solutions. In fact, they are building schools at a fraction of what traditional district schools spend. Alturas International Academy, which opened in Idaho Falls in August, is renovating an old public school building for approximately $12,000 per seat. The local school district, on the other hand, is considering a $90 million bond to upgrade its two high schools — at a cost of more than $37,200 per seat.

In Southern Idaho, recent renovations to Jerome High School cost approximately $18.46 million, or $19,300 per enrolled student. But local charter school Heritage Academy purchased a facility from a private school for $374,000, about $2,600 per enrolled student.

The lesson is not that district schools should receive less funding, or that charters should receive as much as districts. The “right” solution lies somewhere in between — rather than simply asking more from our taxpayers, we should ask for more value for our tax dollars, and more equitable access to quality facilities for all our students.

Lawmakers can do more to help public charter schools access facilities. They could expand existing programs to increase per-pupil facilities allocation and provide additional funding for the charter school debt reserve — which helps high-quality charters obtain favorable facilities financing. They should ensure charter schools have free or low-cost access to vacant public buildings. These facilities have already been purchased by taxpayers and could be put to good use educating Idaho’s children.

But perhaps the most critical step the Legislature could take to ensure that all of Idaho’s public school students have access to appropriate facilities is to allow charter schools access to local bond and levy funds. This will provide all students — regardless of what type of public school they attend — the same access to appropriate learning facilities.

Public charter schools are and can continue to be a valuable option for Idaho’s students. But for them to grow and serve more students they need the support of the state in addressing the gaps in their access to facilities.

Marc Carignan is CFO of Bluum, a nonprofit committed to ensuring Idaho’s children reach their fullest potential by cultivating great leaders and innovative schools. Learn more at Bluum.org

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