A real debate to be had over charter school funding

Travis Pillow

Over the past decade, funding for Florida’s charter school buildings has lagged enrollment growth and efforts to give them access to other sources of capital funding have fizzled.

Sen. John Legg

Sen. John Legg

But they got a boost in the most recent state budget, and school districts facing a decline in their own capital funding have started to notice.

With enrollment increasing and capital funding approaching the symbolic threshold of $100 million, some lawmakers who support charter schools say the state should take a closer look at how that money gets spent.

Sen. John Legg, R-Trinity, is the chairman of the Senate Education Committee. He’s likely to have a say in how talks over capital funding and charter school legislation shake out in the waning days of the session. But he also says there are some longer-range issues lawmakers should explore as the charter sector grows.

Are charter schools spending their money on long-term leases, or do they own their buildings? And what should happen if they ever leave those buildings behind?

Legg knows the business side of charter schools from personal experience. When he helped start Pasco County’s Dayspring Academy 15 years ago, the new school faced a decision about whether to rent or to buy its facilities.

He said it usually makes  financial sense for a school to buy its building and invest in improvements over time – much like a homeowner trying to build up equity. Charter schools can use their capital funding to pay for construction costs or long-term leases. But Legg said the state should try to avoid situations where “we are still paying rent 15 years down that road for a building that that charter school will never own.”

His school has a clause in its contract that stipulates that if it ever closes, the building would be turned over to the school district, which could use it for another public purpose. He said lawmakers should consider encouraging that practice.

“It’s a different model, because it’s now a community asset that’s there for the long term,” he said of the school building. “To me, that’s a legitimate policy argument.”

It’s an argument that might allay some of the objections school districts raise to charter schools that receive state capital funding. But it could also see push-back from some charter school supporters. A lot of the larger charter school networks lease buildings that have been financed privately, with real estate companies carrying the initial financial risk.

Other proposals have been floated to increase financial requirements for charter schools. Democrats have tried unsuccessfully to require charter schools to post surety bonds so school districts aren’t left holding the bag if they’re forced to close. A House panel rejected that idea in the form it was proposed, but the idea could return.

Legg said he’s hoping lawmakers can commission a study that would show the full impact charter schools can have on a local education system, including the cost savings they achieve, as well as the private investment and philanthropic support they can draw into a community.

As Florida’s charter sector becomes more “mature,” he said, the state should try to come up with a long-term policy for capital outlay funding. That would be better, he said, than annual arguments over state money in which charter school critics try to highlight “a fake inequity that doesn’t exist.”

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