A quality facility is essential for creating a school environment where students can thrive.
Unfortunately, access to such facilities remains an immense obstacle to growing more innovative schools: roughly one in five charter school openings are delayed by a year or more due to facility-related issues. Additionally, the lack of an approved or suitable facility is one of the most frequent reasons a charter school closes within the first year of operation.
While we know facilities are a challenge for charter applicants, little has been known about what types of facilities are being proposed in charter school applications and whether this has any effect on approval.
Until now: NACSA has examined facilities data included in the 3,000 charter school proposals in our 20-state national sample.
The data counters some common myths and misconceptions about facilities. Authorizers and advocates can use this analysis to craft better policies and practices.
Most charter school proposals do not identify a school facility, which appears to have no effect on its chance of approval.
Just one in three charter school proposals (33 percent) identified a facility.
NACSA used an expansive definition of “facility” in our analysis. For instance, proposals with identified but not-yet-secured facilities were coded as having facilities identified.
Charter proposals that identify a facility are approved at similar rates as those that do not (37 percent and 41 percent, respectively).
NACSA’s Takeaway: The lack of an identified facility is unlikely to reflect on the quality of a charter school application, since many factors may contribute to its absence. Building densities and real estate markets vary greatly from city to city, affecting the availability and type of facilities. In hot real estate markets (low inventory; many buyers), a facility identified in the proposal stage may be off the market by the time the charter is granted. In many cases, applicants without equitable access to financing or philanthropy may not have the resources needed to find or secure a facility until the charter application is approved.
In order to encourage more diverse, innovative, and equitable charter growth, the lack of an identified facility in the application stage should not be a deal breaker for approving a quality school proposal. However, authorizers should require an approved school operator to secure a safe and adequate facility early in the pre-opening process.
Vacant school buildings are the most commonly identified type of facility in charter proposals.
One in three (34 percent) charter proposals with identified facilities proposed opening the school in a vacant school building. Proposals to co-locate with a traditional district school (2 percent) or another charter school program (5 percent) were the least common facility types identified.
NACSA’s Takeaway: Despite the significant attention paid to co-located charter schools in the national discourse, proposals to co-locate with existing district or other charter schools reflect only a small proportion of all proposals.
Studies show 40 percent of charter schools lack amenities such as gymnasiums, libraries, and cafeterias that are necessary to implement their programs. It is concerning that many of the facility types being proposed likely lack such necessities.
That said, authorizers should consider whether the proposed facility offers the needed amenities for the application’s educational program to be successful, as well as whether these needs are realistic, given the real estate available to charters in their communities.
Most charter school applicants plan to rent or lease their facility.
Nearly three in four charter proposals with an identified facility (73 percent) plan to rent or lease from an organization other than a school district. Few applicant groups have enough resources to already own or purchase their building outright (12 percent) or to take out a mortgage (1 percent).
NACSA’s Takeaway: This data suggests that new applicants, often less credit worthy in the eyes of investors, are finding any way to get their school off the ground during the application and start-up phase. However, this raises important questions about the long-term viability for these schools—and the sector as a whole—given the financial stability that comes with building ownership versus a rented or leased facility.
NACSA is grateful for the initial coding completed by Public Impact for the pipeline project used in this analysis.