New state data by the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) reveal a troubling truth: Most Illinois districts are spending beyond their means and are dipping into reserves or borrowing to stay afloat. For the second year in a row,
Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is on Financial Watch, the worst category of the state's watch list. This has major implications for Chicago's public school students, the city of Chicago, and the state of Illinois. CPS is trying to adopt innovative strategies that can help it better direct its limited resources into the classrooms. One approach is studying the costs associated with designing and building school facilities. Starting in 2015, CPS has worked with various architects, the charter sector, and a group of nonprofit private schools to gather accurate data on the size, design, and cost of brand-new school facilities developed over the past decade in order to influence future design and construction of district schools. Data from Wheeler Kearns Architects of Chicago, the designer of many Chicago charter school facilities, show that charter public schools, also a part of CPS, have succeeded in getting more done with less in the design and construction of school facilities. Charter public schools do not have access to local and capital dollars for facilities under Illinois' current charter school law and must therefore use operational dollars to cover capital expenses. Needing to minimize this unfairness, charter schools have on average managed to create high-quality teaching and learning facilities far more efficiently than the district and private schools.
Cost of construction, size of building considered on a per-student basis for new schools developed by district, public charter schools, private schools, Chicago 2006-2015. The Wheeler Kearns data shared with CPS shows that when building new or totally renovating to create five new school facilities, the district spent an average of $63,500 per student since 2006. The charter sector, on the other hand, only spent an average of $29,002 per student to create 12 schools in the same time period. These charter facilities were built new, adaptively and totally renovated, or some combination of the two. Put simply, charter school facilities have cost on average just 46 percent of what district facilities have cost, per student educated. Charter public school facilities fared better in space efficiency. On average, the district designed 190 square feet of school per student, whereas charter schools designed 91 square feet per student. In some recently constructed district schools, less than 25 percent of the area is comprised of student learning spaces. Some of the design concepts that have allowed charter schools to be more efficient include prioritizing student learning space over "show" space, programming learning spaces continuously throughout the day, and utilizing multipurpose rooms that serve as both athletic and dining areas. All of the charter facilities have science labs; spaces for physical education, art, and music enrichment; classrooms and other spaces for special education; areas for tutoring; and spaces for students to come together in groups. They are schools that advance social and emotional as well as academic learning. In order to build new school facilities, both the district and charter schools used union contractors and union labor, which is ubiquitous in Chicago's commercial construction market. However, the district's contractors spent an average of $334 per square foot of new school while the charters' contractors spent an average of $295 per square foot. This 13 percent difference in per-square foot construction cost between district and charter schools is even more striking when one considers the savings district schools should have realized given their economies of scale. Charter schools have the freedom to use private-sector best practices in construction procurement, which preserve competitiveness in bidding while allowing collaboration between contractors and architects during the design and engineering phase of a project. Given CPS' financial challenges, it is now more important than ever to be as judicious as possible in creating productive teaching and learning spaces. Being efficient with capital expenditure ensures more resources are allocated to teaching students well—the reason schools exist. The charter public school experience in Chicago over the past decade shows that when we have the means and freedom to invest wisely in education, the public will see steady and significant improvement in student retention, attendance, graduation and educational attainment for Chicago's children, citywide. That Chicago charter schools have been successful in doing more with less speaks to the inherent worth of the charter model as an engine for innovation and improvement in America's public education sector.
Dan Alexander is chief operating officer of Northwestern Settlement, a nonprofit organization which operates the Level 1+ Chicago Public School, Rowe Elementary, under charter to the Chicago Board of Education.