Author Archives: Jeff Schulz

What are the Four Characteristics of a Healthy Charter School Facilities Ecosystem? “Infrastructure Insights: Financing Charter School Facilities” Series

Photo courtesy of Yan Krukov for Pexels

As the Biden administration’s historic infusion of federal education funds are spent in states, coupled with a potential $1 trillion bipartisan infrastructure package making its way through Congress — a package that could include money for K-12 building safety and technology upgrades — we must ensure that charter school facilities are included in the policy debate. Join us in an “Infrastructure Insights: Financing Charter School Facilities” weeklong series, where Bellwether Education Partners will share insights into a range of issues facing charter school facilities.

Finding and affording adequate permanent facilities or land to house a charter school is one of the biggest barriers to charter growth. Suitable existing facilities or land are hard to find and typically expensive, the work is highly technical and complicated, and the process takes a considerable investment of time. 

Given lean operating teams at most charters, school and network leaders that should be focused on driving academic gains find themselves instead navigating this unfamiliar and complicated terrain. 

For charters to thrive, we need more systemic solutions that lower the significant facilities barriers that exist. 

Through our work with charter operators and funders across the country, Bellwether has identified the four characteristics of a healthy charter school facilities ecosystem; the graphic below captures three ideal-state market characteristics (in blue) as well as policy characteristics (in red).

Market (in blue) and policy (in red) characteristics of a healthy charter school facilities ecosystem

1. ACCESS: There must be a supply of affordable buildings (or land that can be developed) that is accessible to charter schools. The most economical option, and the one most operators look to first, is securing an existing school building and modifying it to meet their needs. In many markets, districts typically hold on tightly to their vacant buildings; access to buildings previously occupied by private schools (many of which have shuttered due to declining enrollment) is much more limited. Local policies that incentivize or compel districts to make vacant buildings or excess space available (at market or discounted rates), including co-locating charter schools with traditional district schools, can add needed building supply, if enforced.

When existing school building space is limited, charters must look to commercial spaces that are more expensive to modify. This can be prohibitively expensive in many dense, urban markets such as Boston, San Francisco, and Seattle. Overly restrictive zoning regulations and bureaucratic permitting processes can also create barriers in many markets, severely limiting the options available to charters and significantly extending the time it takes to navigate the process. 

These barriers can be reduced or eliminated through a mix of smart zoning and incentives. Local zoning regulations should permit the construction of schools in most commercial or mixed-use areas. In dense markets, incentives can encourage developers of mixed-use buildings to include a school as a tenant. And, a nonprofit “incubator” space that is used by charters in their early years as they scale up (before they move to a permanent building) can help make the economics work by lowering the cost of facilities in the early growth years.

2. FINANCING: Operators must have access to affordable financing, which typically requires schools to contribute ~10-20% equity. When an operator does identify a suitable building or land, it must secure the financing required for the purchase and any renovation/building costs. Most charters cannot issue bonds (the primary mechanism for districts to finance facilities construction). Instead, they must look to the private lending market. This is often an issue because most private lenders don’t have familiarity with the charter market and are reluctant to make investments as a result. 

To secure financing, schools typically must provide some amount of equity, which is a major struggle for most as a result of the relatively low (compared to district schools) per-pupil funding and limited dedicated facilities funding charters receive. There are multiple mechanisms for addressing this gap. A nonprofit or mission-driven lender (e.g. CDFI, loan fund, or philanthropist) can provide a low/no-interest loan that serves as equity and stimulates private lending and other nonprofit lenders that provide higher-risk capital. A publicly funded loan fund can provide credit-worthy charters access to low-cost capital. And the State can provide credit enhancements (e.g. in the form of a loan guarantee) that lower the cost of borrowing. 

3. EXPERTISE: Schools must have — or have access to — the expertise and resources to navigate the complicated facilities process. The leaders of individual charter schools and small networks often have academic backgrounds and limited expertise in facilities. Unfortunately, because most leadership teams are lean, these leaders must also drive the facilities process. 

In an ideal situation, these leaders can access support from a local expert to navigate the often multi-year process to secure a permanent facility (see graphic below). Local nonprofits, facilities developers, or individual consultants can provide technical expertise, funded by philanthropy, to operators across the full facilities process or more targeted support at different stages.

Support levers to secure a permanent building in a healthy charter school facilities ecosystem

4. STATE POLICY: There must be supportive state policy. State policy has a major impact on access and financing in a healthy charter school facilities ecosystem. Come back tomorrow for another post in our “Infrastructure Insights: Financing Charter School Facilities” series, focused on the different ways that federal funds and state policy impact the charter school facilities ecosystem.

Preventing a “Lost Generation” of Community College Learners

This is our latest post in “The Looming Financial Crisis?” series. Read the rest here.

Monroe Community College Cafeteria, all seats at round tables empty, yellow overhead lighting

Photo by David Maiolo via Wikimedia

Community colleges have long served as an accessible and affordable post-secondary pathway to better jobs for high school graduates and adults looking to upskill. For example, the median weekly earnings for someone with an associate’s degree are 17% higher than for those with only a high school diploma or a GED. Community colleges are particularly important for traditionally underserved students: compared to students at four-year colleges, community college students are more likely to be the first in their families to attend college, to be from a low-income family, and to be members of racial or ethnic minority groups. 

This is one reason why the steep declines in community college enrollment this fall are especially troubling. According to newly released data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (NSCRC), undergraduate enrollments across the country are down 4.0 percent compared to the same time last year, with the biggest losses being at community colleges, where enrollments declined by 9.4 percent, on fall enrollments. 

Before the pandemic, there were approximately 5.5 million students enrolled in community college nationally. A 9.4 percent enrollment decrease equals about 520,000 students that have “stopped out” of community college, at least temporarily. This group of students is at risk of being a “lost generation” of learners. Dr. Karen Stout, president and CEO of Achieving the Dream, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping community colleges become leaders in their communities, told The Well News: “The pandemic, if we are unable to find students we lost and keep students we serve, and open up new access points for new students, will result in a lost generation of learners that will hurt the economic and civic fabrics of the communities our colleges serve.” 

Why are more community college students “stopping out” of college relative to four-year students? We know from our work that, in aggregate, community college students often face more barriers on their road to completion. This excerpt from an April NEA Today article sheds some light:

Students who are first-generation, who are on financial aid, who face challenges around hunger, housing, transportation, and who are balancing work, childcare, and more, “they are all being adversely affected in ways that make those inequities more stark and more exacerbated,” says [Kurt Meyer, an English professor at Irvine Valley College in California and president of the South Orange County Community College District Faculty Association], who notes a five-fold increase in South Orange County college students recently applying for emergency funds to pay rent, fix cars, and more.

One major challenge is that many community colleges were struggling financially even before the pandemic and are likely to see further financial challenges as a result of the pandemic. Not only are many schools facing losses of income from reduced enrollment and unexpected refunds, but many are facing additional financial challenges caused by cuts in state funding. Lakeland Community College in Ohio, for example, will lose over $780,000 in state funding by the end of June 2020 and expects to lose over $4 million for the fiscal year ending in 2021. Similar cases can be found around the country, and many community colleges have been forced to furlough and lay off faculty and staff.

So, what can leaders do to ensure that we don’t lose a generation of students to COVID disruptions and increasingly tight financial constraints?  Continue reading

We Helped Two Schools Create Reopening Plans — Here Are Five Lessons

This post was co-authored with Heather McManus of NewSchools Venture Fund.

With school starting in most places in a few weeks, school and network leaders are under tremendous pressure to finalize their reopening plans. With those leaders in mind, Bellwether just released a new planning resource that includes all of the components of a reopening plan, offers questions school leaders should address, and links to concrete guidance and completed plans as examples. We know it’s an overwhelming time, but we trust that these seven worksheets and linked resources will cut through the noise and set school leaders on a strong path for the fall.

boy in a face mask wearing black backpack at a school locker

Photo via Flickr user jill_carlson

Why are we so confident? Because the modifiable and customizable templates in our tool came directly out of our team’s work supporting two schools this summer to develop their reopening plans. Through a partnership with NewSchools Venture Fund (NSVF), we spent six weeks with Urban Act Academy (a K-8 campus in Indianapolis, IN) and Comp Sci High (a 9-12 campus in Bronx, NY), meeting regularly with their leaders to help them structure, develop, and refine their plans. Their completed plans are available to view: Comp Sci HS – Instructional Plan, Comp Sci HS – Operations Plan, Urban Act Academy – Master Reopening Plan.

In working side-by-side with these two school teams, the thing that struck us most was how much there is to do in such a little amount of time. School leaders are preparing for multiple back-to-school scenarios, and for each they need to clearly define and communicate what academics, culture, talent, and operations will look like. And they are often doing this without clear guidance from their state governments. 

The tools and guidance in our new planning resource capture the approach and tools we used, and are intended to help other schools facing similar complexity accelerate their progress. Here are five lessons from our work: Continue reading

DC Public Schools Increased College Enrollment Rates in Five Years. Here’s How.

Between 2013 and 2018, DC Public Schools (DCPS) went from only 41% of its high school graduates enrolling in college to 55%. How was the district able to cross the threshold to help more than half of graduates enroll in college, and what can other districts learn from the strategies they implemented?

Kaya Henderson, Chancellor of DCPS from 2010-2016, believed deeply in the importance of supporting K-12 students on their path to postsecondary success. She decided the district needed to take a more active role in crafting the vision for postsecondary advising and connecting the efforts of the many college access organizations (CAOs) operating in the district.

As my colleague Lina Bankert writes in The 74 this week:

The district started by creating a small central team, with just two dedicated staffers who set districtwide aspirations for postsecondary success. Over time, the district created a school-based college and career coordinator position to work in tandem with the central team. The people in this role were charged with coordinating with the nearly 70 college access and success third-party programs that operate across the city. Their goal was to ensure that resources at the school level — counselors, afterschool programs and more — were coordinating well and not duplicating efforts. Importantly, this initiative started as a resource-limited, grant-funded pilot at three of the highest-need schools and was later expanded across district high schools, and then moved into the district’s budget based on its success.

Cover of "Equitable Postsecondary Advising Systems Expanding access to help close the degree divide" tip sheet for districts, by Bellwether Education Partners June 2020

DCPS is a great example of what can happen when a school district prioritizes postsecondary advising and takes an active role in ensuring students have the support they need. We profiled DCPS and many other districts, college access organizations (CAOs), and intermediary organizations in our latest report on postsecondary advising

Read the full report here or check out one of our simple summaries for funders, CAOs, or districts.