October 19, 2021

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K-12 Education: Challenges Locating and Securing Charter School Facilities and Government Assistance

8 min read
<div>Why GAO Did This Study Charter schools are public schools established under charters, typically with state or local entities, and have more flexibility and autonomy. In exchange, charter schools must meet specific accountability standards. GAO was asked to examine the extent to which charter schools had access to public facilities and the costs associated with such access. This report examines (1) challenges faced by charter schools in locating and securing facilities and (2) select programs available to help charter schools address challenges when locating and securing facilities. To answer these questions, GAO conducted individual and group interviews with state, school district, and charter school officials in California and Colorado, which were selected based on the variety of their programs, among other factors. In addition, GAO interviewed Department of Education officials and other stakeholders. GAO also reviewed agency documents and relevant federal and state laws, regulations, and policies. What GAO Found From school year 2002-2003 to school year 2018-2019 (most recent national data available) the number of charter schools increased from about 2,700 to 7,400 and the number of enrolled students increased from about 700,000 to about 3.3 million. Consistent with prior GAO work in 2000 and 2003, charter schools continue to face challenges locating and securing facilities. GAO identified four key challenges based on interviews with state, school district, and charter school officials in California and Colorado, as well as representatives of nonprofit organizations that provide affordable loans to assist charter schools, and other stakeholders: Affordability. Limited access to state and local funding and affordable private loans as well as rising real estate costs and renovation expenses. Availability. Lack of amenities (e.g., a cafeteria or playground) or safe and secure building space and limited access to public or private buildings. Lack of consistent local support. Inconsistent assistance by local governments and school districts for charter school facilities' needs. Capacity to manage facilities. Limited expertise in facilities management. Various state and federal programs may assist charter schools with challenges locating and securing facilities. In the two states GAO reviewed, California and Colorado, programs that assist charter schools with facilities funding or building space include per-pupil allowances, grant programs, local bond measures, and use of school district facilities. In addition, federal agencies, such as the Department of Education and the Department of Agriculture, provide grants and loans to help charter schools acquire facilities. For example, Education has two facilities-focused competitive grant programs, including one that allows funds to be used for a state's per-pupil facility allowance. Education's National Charter School Resource Center assists charter schools by providing information and other resources related to facilities. For more information, contact Jacqueline M. Nowicki at (617) 788-0580 or nowickij@gao.gov.  </div>

Fast Facts

Charter schools are public schools operated by independent organizations under agreements with state or local governments. Officials who help fund and operate them told us one big challenge they experience is obtaining facilities because:

  • Some federal and state funding is available but may not cover all facility costs
  • Private loans may be difficult to obtain
  • Suitable buildings are hard to find
  • Real estate and renovation costs are rising
  • School districts and local governments don’t always provide needed support, such as installing sidewalks
  • Educators, not managers, often manage buildings

This charter school in Durango, CO is in disrepair and in need of a new facility.

Highlights

Why GAO Did This Study

Charter schools are public schools established under charters, typically with state or local entities, and have more flexibility and autonomy. In exchange, charter schools must meet specific accountability standards.

GAO was asked to examine the extent to which charter schools had access to public facilities and the costs associated with such access. This report examines (1) challenges faced by charter schools in locating and securing facilities and (2) select programs available to help charter schools address challenges when locating and securing facilities. To answer these questions, GAO conducted individual and group interviews with state, school district, and charter school officials in California and Colorado, which were selected based on the variety of their programs, among other factors. In addition, GAO interviewed Department of Education officials and other stakeholders. GAO also reviewed agency documents and relevant federal and state laws, regulations, and policies.

What GAO Found

From school year 2002-2003 to school year 2018-2019 (most recent national data available) the number of charter schools increased from about 2,700 to 7,400 and the number of enrolled students increased from about 700,000 to about 3.3 million. Consistent with prior GAO work in 2000 and 2003, charter schools continue to face challenges locating and securing facilities. GAO identified four key challenges based on interviews with state, school district, and charter school officials in California and Colorado, as well as representatives of nonprofit organizations that provide affordable loans to assist charter schools, and other stakeholders:

  • Affordability. Limited access to state and local funding and affordable private loans as well as rising real estate costs and renovation expenses.
  • Availability. Lack of amenities (e.g., a cafeteria or playground) or safe and secure building space and limited access to public or private buildings.
  • Lack of consistent local support. Inconsistent assistance by local governments and school districts for charter school facilities’ needs.
  • Capacity to manage facilities. Limited expertise in facilities management.

Various state and federal programs may assist charter schools with challenges locating and securing facilities. In the two states GAO reviewed, California and Colorado, programs that assist charter schools with facilities funding or building space include per-pupil allowances, grant programs, local bond measures, and use of school district facilities. In addition, federal agencies, such as the Department of Education and the Department of Agriculture, provide grants and loans to help charter schools acquire facilities. For example, Education has two facilities-focused competitive grant programs, including one that allows funds to be used for a state’s per-pupil facility allowance. Education’s National Charter School Resource Center assists charter schools by providing information and other resources related to facilities.

For more information, contact Jacqueline M. Nowicki at (617) 788-0580 or nowickij@gao.gov.
 

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