A little perspective on charter schools and hurricane shelters

Last month, public schools all over Florida helped staff shelters and coordinate relief in the wake of Hurricane Irma. School districts rose to the occasion. Charter schools played a role, too.

Still, an odd set of talking points emerged in the weeks after the storm. They suggested charter schools did not open their doors to shelter fleeing residents, or that they aren’t built to the same safety standards as their district-run counterparts.

Today, a Senate education panel is set to discuss Irma’s impact and emergency coordination. And lawmakers for years have talked about giving school districts some of the construction flexibility charter schools have. They even ordered a report on the topic last year.

That means it’s possible this discussion might not be going away. So it’s worth putting a few things in perspective.

Safe spaces

Florida charter schools don’t have to build under all the same regulations as district-run schools. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re less sturdy.

Florida’s building codes apply different risk categories to structures. For example, in Miami-Dade County, schools that house 250 or more students have to be built to the most stringent standard of wind resistance. Whether they’re run by a district, a charter school organization or a church, they have to be able to handle wind gusts up to 186 miles per hour.In other words, many charter schools would meet the wind resistance and structural integrity requirements to serve as hurricane shelters. But they aren’t the ones who decide whether they’ll play that role. The decision is in the hands of other local officials. For example, in Miami-Dade, it’s a joint determination by the American Red Cross, the county emergency management office and the local school district.

However, other requirements likely preclude many charters. Miami-Dade officials require evacuation centers to “have a capacity greater than 1000; have a full service kitchen which can store a two to three day supply of food; ample parking and evacuees have access to all shelter areas in the facility during the lockdown period.”

Counting the cost

Many charter schools don’t have high-capacity kitchens or huge parking lots. There’s a reason for that.

A charter high school in Miami-Dade would have received about $350 per student last year from the state to pay for its facilities. The district, on the other hand, brought in more than four times that much revenue per student to pay for capital projects.

Charter schools receiving inequitable funding couldn’t afford some the amenities that might be important for shelter facilities. They’re also exempt from rules that govern the facilities school districts build.

According to a recent report by the state Legislature’s research arm, districts say those amenities — and other requirements that don’t apply to charters — drive up school construction costs by as much as 7 percent.

What comes next?

A new law now requires charter schools to receive equitable funding. After deducting a district’s debt payments, all public schools in the district should receive an equal amount of funding per student.

The Palm Beach County School Board is now attacking that law in court. And other districts might pursue a separate legal challenge.

Assuming the law is upheld, some people have asked why charter schools don’t face the same shelter construction requirements as district-run public schools. But in large districts, only a fraction of public schools serve as shelters (including less than a tenth of Miami-Dade’s public schools). The report by the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability found a few cost-effective ways the Legislature could give school districts more of the flexibility charter schools receive, without compromising the need for shelters.

It’s worth looking at changes that could help districts use their funding more wisely. Many are short on construction funds, and new revenue sources aren’t readily available. But that debate doesn’t need to pit one type of public school against another.

One Response to A little perspective on charter schools and hurricane shelters

  1. Doug Tuthill October 9, 2017 at 3:51 pm #

    Thanks for sharing these facts Travis. Hopefully this discussion moving forward will be more fact-based.