The connection between charter schools and religion continues to generate the occasional headline, with the most recent coming last week when the New York Times carried a Texas Tribune story about Texas charter schools leasing space from churches. Some of those interviewed objected to the entanglement of the schools with the churches and the “benefits” that churches were gaining from these arrangements.
I think these concerns are misguided, given the state of charter facilities funding and the facts on the ground about most of these relationships. At the same time, I think the legal door is open in some states for the possibility of faith-based charter schools, which would be a step forward for school choice and education reform. Let me explain.
1. The Present
At the moment, in all states that permit charter schools as part of their public school system, charter schools may not be religious schools. Put simply, this means that religion may be no more a part of these schools than it is in other (traditional) public schools. School prayer is prohibited. Students and teachers may not be selected on the basis of their or their family’s religious beliefs. The curriculum must be secular.
Finding a suitable place to locate charter schools is a widespread problem. Those who run charter schools have to pay for their facilities from the same funds that also pay for all the academic and other financial obligations, whereas public school facilities are financed separately, usually through general obligation bonds, paid by property owners in the school district until the facility is fully paid for. Many charter schools are in leased premises, unlike traditional public schools. This generally puts charter schools at a substantial financial disadvantage compared to their other public school counterparts.
In some places, as here in California, the local school district is supposed to offer suitable facilities to charter school operators, but in practice that often is a hollow requirement as the place or places offered are locations that are actually quite unsuitable. Sometimes school district leaders have nothing better to offer; other times, it seems they deliberately offer what they know will be rejected because they are hostile to charter schools taking away “their” pupils. Many instances of protracted litigation have occurred before charter schools have been able to secure facility agreements from school districts.
As a result, it is natural that charter school operators frequently turn to churches as potential landlords.