Charters to have easier access to surplus school facilities

Charters to have easier access to surplus school facilities

(Ark.) Charter schools will have first dibs on purchasing or leasing space in unused or underutilized public school facilities under a bill that is quickly moving through the Arkansas Legislature.

State law currently provides charters priority if a district is selling a public school building, but a  bill  approved Thursday in the lower house would add the requirement that school districts submit a yearly public report identifying which facilities are empty or not being fully used.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, and Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, would also restrict districts from selling or leasing public school property to non-charter entities for two years after it goes on the state’s Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation unused or underutilized list.

Any district that fails to comply could be classified as being in “academic facilities distress” and subject to state takeover.

A lack of facilities has long been a burden for charter school groups throughout the country. A survey of Ohio brick-and-mortar charter schools released last month found that few Ohio charter schools are able to utilize unused or underutilized district facilities.

And in California, where charter enrollment tripled between 2004 and 2014, an analysis of the charter school facilities landscape in 2015 found that while 85 percent of charters across the state signaled they planned to grow their enrollment over the next five years, 64 percent of those did not have the space for their desired enrollment.  Both the California and Ohio reports were sponsored by the National Charter School Resource Center.

Historically, districts have fought to keep facilities out of the hands of charter schools, who they argue are the cause of many school closings in the first place. But with U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and President Donald Trump advocating for school choice, tides may be turning in favor of charter operators.

Lowery and Clark have explained that their bill was prompted by an issue that unfolded over the course of approximately three years in which the state Board of Education declared the Helena-West Helena School District in financial distress and put the district under state control. Shortly after, the district closed three schools.

Scott Shirey, executive director of KIPP Delta Public Schools, a charter school operator in Phillips County, Arkansas, testified in favor of the bill–noting that KIPP Delta wanted to purchase one of the elementary schools which had been closed, but the state would not immediately sell the building.

Under Lowery and Clark’s bill, Shirey’s organization could have leased or purchased that facility before the state took over the district.

The bill has received some criticism from both sides of the isle. One Republican lawmaker noted that the state would be setting up a preferred buyer system in the educational setting that it wouldn’t do in any other situation–for example, the state would not allow only grocers to buy empty public buildings.

Meanwhile, some Democratic lawmakers and the Arkansas Public Policy Panel argued that the bill takes local control and decision-making power from districts that may be better positioned to know what is best in their communities.

To both points, supporters of the bill say it will give charter school students access to facilities that already exist specifically for educational purposes.

Governor Asa Hutchinson is expected to sign the bill once it reaches his desk, according to local reports.