Tag Archives: Facilities

As More Districts Create “Autonomous Schools,” They Need a Balanced Approach to District-Wide Services

We have written multiple posts in recent months about the spread of “autonomous district schools,” which occupy the middle ground between traditional district schools and charter schools. These models allow district schools to use some of the same freedoms as charter schools, while also remaining part of the district and receiving a range of district services, like access to district facilities, transportation services, and enrollment systems. 

But, as we explain in our new report, “Staking out the Middle Ground: Policy Design for Autonomous Schools,” districts vary widely — and confusingly — in their approaches. Some districts mandate which services their autonomous schools must use, while others create a structure for these schools to opt into or purchase certain district services. This can lead to a complicated balancing act between easily accessing these services and preserving schools’ autonomy to make decisions about how to best serve their students. 

three women school leaders sit around a tale with colorful writing and markers

Autonomous school leaders in San Antonio, TX: Regina Arzamendi (Principal, Young Women’s Leadership Academy), Delia McLarren (Head of Schools, Young Women’s Leadership Academy), Andrea Pitts (Principal, Young Women’s Leadership Academy Primary)

Below are three lessons from our research that policymakers should consider when crafting autonomous school policies to improve the ways that districts relate to and support these schools:

Accessing district facilities can be a powerful incentive for autonomous district schools.

Facilities are a substantial cost for charter schools, which often lack access to taxpayer-funded facilities and, on average, spend about 10% of their per-pupil funding on facility space. Autonomous district schools, meanwhile, are typically housed within district-owned facilities. This arrangement eliminates one of the most important barriers facing school leaders who want to establish and operate a school with more decision-making power. However, accessing district facilities can also limit school leaders’ ability to make decisions about where their schools are located and whether a particular building provides an ideal setting for educating students. Districts interested in autonomous school policies, especially those involving external partners, need to consider how autonomous schools will be matched with facilities and what impact their location might have on other elements of school operations like transportation and enrollment.

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My Slow-Motion Catholic School Epiphany

I am not Catholic and I have never worked in a Catholic school. I’d always known there are urban Catholic schools with a mission very similar to Bellwether’s, but the schools themselves were somewhat of a black box to me. I haven’t been for or against Catholic schools — just indifferent (or agnostic?). Knowing that Catholic schools are by far the largest group of private schools in the world, this felt like a miss.

However, I’ve been on a sort of Catholic school pilgrimage over the past two years. I’ve built a close relationship with Bellwether client Partnership Schools (PNYC), a nonprofit organization (somewhat akin to a CMO) that manages seven New York City Catholic schools in Harlem and the South Bronx. I’ve also worked with EdChoice and Brilla Public Charter Schools, and collaborated with colleagues who’ve written a whole lot about Catholic schools. 

P012506PM-0291 Youngsters from the Cathedral Church of St. John react as they watch the arrival of Marine One to the South Lawn of the White House with President George W. Bush aboard Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2006. White House photo by Paul Morse

Photo by Paul Morse

As I learned more, a few things immediately surprised me about Catholic schools in general and PNYC’s schools in particular:

  1. Many (sometimes most) kids who attend PNYC schools aren’t actually Catholic! The primary goal of urban Catholic schools isn’t to create little Catholics — it’s to serve those in need. As one PNYC team member put it (echoing what others have said): “We teach our kids because we are Catholic, not because they are.”
  2. While connected to a massive international church (and sometimes an operator like PNYC), Catholic schools are strongly committed to local control because of the Catholic principle of subsidiarity, which suggests that decisions be made by the smallest, lowest, or least-centralized competent authority.
  3. While PNYC schools are tuition-based, many of their students receive scholarships that significantly reduce or even eliminate the cost of attendance.
  4. Few PNYC teachers are nuns (or have any formal connection to the church). Most teach for reasons similar to other teachers — a belief in the transformative power of education, a desire to serve, and a love of children. The key addition in the case of PNYC is the faith-based motivation that inspires many to choose Catholic schools over their charter or district-run peers.
  5. PNYC’s teachers are unionized. While this is rare in the private school sector, there are actually a few different Catholic educator associations operating nationwide.  

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Ideas for Idaho: Fairness for School Facilities Funding

On both state and national tests, Idaho’s public charter school students exceed the academic performance of their district counterparts, including students from traditionally underserved communities. With such strong student achievement results, shouldn’t these schools receive the same amount of money as traditional public schools to build new buildings or rehabilitate old ones? Unfortunately they don’t. On average, in fact, they receive roughly a third of what district schools do, and they are having to come up with creative ways to cover that gap.

Our latest report, Fairness in Facilities: Why Idaho Public Schools Need More Facilities Funding, finds that while district schools receive $1,206 on average per student from state and local funding facility streams, Idaho charter schools receive just $445 in state funding, without any local funding. As Fairness in Facilities details, lower charter school facility funding forces school leaders to make difficult choices, like cutting extracurriculars or support services, or making creative arrangements with other nonprofits to share facilities.

And in Idaho, the nation’s fastest-growing state, the problem is not going away. Enrollment in Idaho public K-12 schools has increased by nearly 50,000 students over the last 15 years. In the charter sector, enrollment has doubled from roughly 11,000 in 2008 to around 22,000 in 2018, with those students attending one of 52 Idaho charter schools. Thousands of students are on Idaho charter school waiting lists, adding to the demand for new facilities.

State- and local-level policy changes are necessary to alleviate this inequity. Fairness in Facilities makes a few concrete charter-specific recommendations: Continue reading

Finding and Financing Facilities Remains a Barrier for Idaho Charter Schools

Finding and financing school facilities continues to be a major barrier for charter schools. Many states have created programs to help ease the burden, including loan programs, per-pupil facilities allocations, and provisions to help charters access unused facilities.

But no state has fully equalized facilities access for charter schools. Idaho is no exception.

Screen Shot 2016-12-09 at 4.45.23 PMIn a new report, Juliet Squire and I present the results of a survey of Idaho’s charter school leaders. We asked charter leaders about their facilities-related expenditures, and what amenities (like auditoriums, gyms, and libraries) their facilities have. We then collected data points like the square footage and seat capacity of schools’ current facilities.

These data enabled us to quantify the stark discrepancy in access to state and local facilities funding sources between district and charter schools. On average, districts have access to approximately $1,445 per pupil of state and local funding. Charter schools get less than one-quarter this amount: $347.

Organizations like Building Hope and foundations like the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation (a Bellwether client) have helped close this gap for some charter schools. Others have been able to access tax-exempt bonds through the Idaho Housing and Finance Association. And the state has recently enacted a debt reserve fund and a small per-pupil facilities allocation (about $335 this year). Even so, most charter schools rely heavily on their per-pupil funds to cover facilities-related expenses.

The data from our survey suggest that, despite these avenues for facilities funding, accessing financing remains a major barrier to securing an adequate facility. Moreover, charter leaders struggle to find property suitable for their school, and often have to make significant tradeoffs — like forgoing a gymnasium or using cheaper materials to build. When facilities are inadequate, charter leaders indicate that it is difficult to provide the educational programming they envision for their students.

But perhaps the most telling finding is that, despite the financial constraints they face, charter leaders are doing extraordinary work securing facilities for their schools. In fact, they are able to build schools at a fraction of what traditional school districts spend. Continue reading

Ohio Problems, Ohio Solutions

Ohio-Map

Image from http://undergrad.osu.edu

We recently offered 10 policy recommendations to address the discouraging performance of Ohio’s charter school sector. We think the building blocks of our recommendations (e.g. strengthening the autonomy-accountability bargain, improving authorizing, creating smart incentives) are relevant to all states, and we suspect the specifics of some recommendations might fit the bill in some states.

But our report was written in response to conditions in Ohio. Several provisions in the Buckeye State’s law are unusual, and after more than 15 years of charter experience, Ohio can now see the long-term consequences of many of its policy decisions.

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