Photo: The Jenna Juice

A newly released study of Georgia’s charter school facility and financing environment finds that Georgia charter schools pay more than their traditional district school and national charter school counterparts for less adequate facilities. Commissioned by the State Charter Schools Foundation of Georgia (SCSF) and conducted by Level Field Partners (LFP), the Georgia State Charter School Facility Landscape Analysis identifies the challenges that Georgia charter schools face in pursuit of affordable facilities and provides recommendations to address those challenges.

“These data shine a spotlight on persistent barriers spanning urban, rural and suburban charter school communities,” said State Charter Schools Foundation President & CEO Laura Bollman. “All of us in the charter sector can put these findings and recommendations to work; from charter school board members to quality lenders to public school advocates. We can all work smarter to ensure our per pupil dollars stay in our classrooms rather than paying lenders and landlords.”

According to the report, although Georgia charter schools operate in a market with generally pro-school choice policies, many schools struggle to grow enrollment and establish stability due to limited access to public space, low funding and human capital constraints. The report finds that Georgia’s state-approved charter schools allocate an average of 12.5 percent of annual operating budgets compared to the national charter school average of eight to 14 percent. Despite frequently spending within or above the recommended affordability range, the surveyed schools generally occupy spaces similar to or smaller than the national range of 75-100 square feet per student (sf/student).

“Our findings in Georgia are reflective of challenges faced by public charter schools across the country as they are typically required to pay for facility-related expenses out of per-pupil funding – this significant expense is one that charters’ district counterparts do not need to budget for each year,” said Lindsay Phillips of Level Field Partners. “State charter schools in Georgia are especially burdened because they do not receive local funding dollars and must finance facilities needs with lower per pupil funding than what is directed towards traditional district schools.”

Charters occupying district-owned facilities fare better than those occupying facilities financed through private developers, the study finds, though district facilities are rarely available or accessible to charters. District facilities, on average, require 4.7% of a school’s operating budget for 110 sf/student, compared to 16.8% for just 76 sf/student through for-profit developers. While LFP collected data from schools approved by the State Charter Schools Commission of Georgia (SCSC), or “state charter schools,” the general facility and finance trends also apply to district-approved charter schools.

Survey respondents reported that the lack of space had a notable impact on schools’ ability to enroll additional students and thereby reach financial stability. 85 percent reported missing athletic spaces, outdoor spaces, multi-purpose space or sufficient classroom spaces. The responding schools represent 10,843 students occupying approximately 1.1 million square feet in 21 facilities throughout the state.

“The facility search is a serious hurdle for charter schools in Georgia,” said State Charter Schools Commission Interim Executive Director Gregg Stevens. “Most charter schools must choose between locating in subpar facilities that limit growth or financially overextending themselves to build a new space. Both practices put the long-term success of the school – and most importantly, student opportunity – at risk.”

To address the facility challenge, the report recommends that state officials fund the State Facility Grant program (HB430, 2017), which would provide charter schools with $100,000 block grants to fund facility improvements. This legislation was adopted in May 2017 and funding has yet to be reserved in the state budget. The authors also recommend that the state improve access to district-owned facility spaces, which are not generally available or accessible to state charter schools. Finally, the report suggests that officials work to improve the landscape of financing options and improve operator knowledge through training.

“The new facilities study by the State Charter Schools Foundation of Georgia highlights the need for lawmakers to place $100,000 in annual facilities funding for every Georgia charter school in the state budget. This crucial facilities block grant was created by the passage and signing of House Bill 430 and is necessary to ensure that Georgia’s public charter schools are able to spend a larger portion of their per-pupil operating revenue in the classroom,” said Tony Roberts, President and CEO of the Georgia Charter Schools Association. “The SCSF facilities analysis also underscores why charter schools throughout Georgia should be given greater access to district and state facilities. The lack of access to quality and low-cost facilities is the number one reason charter schools are unable to grow to meet parent demand.”

Georgia State Charter School Facility Landscape Analysis:

Executive Summary

Full Report

Information from the Georgia Charter School Commission

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