Lawmakers should insist that charters can acquire school buildings
(Editor's Note: This article first appeared in the Lansing State Journal on Jan. 21, 2012.)
Late last year, the Legislature eliminated an arbitrary cap on the number of charter public schools in Michigan. As a result, over the next few years, dozens and maybe hundreds of new charters will help families find schools better suited to their children's needs. To realize the full potential of this reform, however, a few more steps are necessary.
The first is to remove a similar cap that still restricts the number of students who can take advantage of online charter schools. Currently, only two of these innovative schools are allowed, and only 2,000 Michigan students can take advantage of them. Recognizing that it makes no sense to deny children a learning opportunity their parents have selected, the state Senate has passed a bill to repeal the limits, but it may face headwinds in the House.
The second issue concerns brick-and-mortar charter schools' ability to acquire and finance facilities. Unlike regular school districts, charters in Michigan cannot levy local property taxes to purchase, expand or repair facilities. This leaves them heavily reliant on borrowing and philanthropy, and forces many to spend money on classrooms rather than in classrooms.
Once funding is secured, however, charters often face another obstacle that should anger taxpayers: Hostile discrimination from conventional school districts. Shockingly, many school boards have blocked charter schools from purchasing vacant school buildings at a fair market value. These districts waste money maintaining empty buildings, and keeping other below-capacity schools open, simply to deny their use by another public school.
An example recently played out in Battle Creek. A nearby nonprofit organization wanted to open a new charter and submitted a bid for the full asking price of $250,000 on a vacant school the local district was selling. Rather than sell to a charter, the Battle Creek school board chose instead to reject a quarter of a million dollars and continue spending $30,000 annually to maintain the empty building. Unfortunately, no state law prohibits public schools from wasting taxpayer's dollars in this way.
That's not the case in some other states. Georgia, for example, requires school districts to make unused buildings available to charters. Louisiana law requires that vacant school buildings be sold to charters at a fair market price. Indiana recently passed a bill that provides vacant district-owned school buildings to charters for free. As Gov. Mitch Daniels neatly explained, "The taxpayers paid for them once already."
Other states make funds available for charters to purchase, rent and maintain facilities. Colorado appropriated $5 million for this recently. Minnesota, which has arguably the most enlightened charter school law in the country, provides charters with up to 90 percent (or $1,200 per student) of the cost of their facilities.
Charter schools serve the public interest and provide parents with the educational experience they want for their children. After almost a decade of declining enrollment, there are many vacant schools in Michigan. The Legislature should prohibit the conventional school discrimination and "turf protection" that prevents charters from using them.