school leadership

What Happens When a Good Public Charter School Can’t Get a Building

Imagine that your 15-year-old daughter is enrolled in a public high school that you both chose for its affirmative culture and impressive academics. Your daughter—let’s call her Emma—struggled in middle school, yet midway through her sophomore year (finally!) she is flourishing, with a lovely group of friends, supportive teachers and a fierce determination to be the first in her family to go to college.

But this afternoon she came home in tears because the district superintendent announced that he was evicting the school from the building it shares with another school. Why? He wants to use the facilities as a “detention center for students who are picked up by truancy officers.”

How can this happen, you wonder? How can the leader of a public school system evict 340 students from a great school where the waitlist exceeds the current total enrollment?

Here’s your answer: Emma’s school, which has succeeded with low-income Black and Latino students for almost a decade, is a public charter school called People’s Prep, located in Newark’s gritty Central Ward. But in New Jersey, as in many other states, student success is less important than politics when it comes to providing basic facilities for these public schools. 

This is a problem for families across America who seek access to high-quality schools for their children—especially if they can’t afford to exercise our most popular form of school choice, moving to a better district. 

While the popularity of public charters is soaring among Black and Brown parents, state laws aren’t catching up. Only 10 states provide equitable access to capital funding and facilities, and this often because they wish “to avoid controversy with the state teachers union” (as in my home state of New Jersey). In contrast, our state charter association notes that “traditional districts receive millions of dollars per year in debt service aid and access to free buildings.” 

In order to provide for students, then, many U.S. charter schools are forced to raise private money for buildings, spend less per student, and rely on complicated real estate transactions that involve federal tax subsidies created under the Clinton and Obama administrations. It’s a constant headache, even while charter schools in places like Newark have completely closed the achievement gap between White and Black students, as well as low-income and higher-income students.

This quandary serves as an emblem of the educational inequities that challenge low-income parents, disproportionately of color, who are desperate for high-quality schools.

For example:

  • In Milwaukee, a school that is part of the Rocketship charter group that performs in the top 5% statewide, tried to buy a district building, but after protests by the Milwaukee teachers union, the deal fell through.
  • In Phoenix, a charter called ASU Preparatory Academy, where 100% of students graduate and go to college, the district has demanded a massive rent hike which the school can’t pay. 
  • In Detroit, the school district manipulated deed restrictions to keep a charter school, Detroit Prep, from buying an abandoned old school building. (The deal was completed after litigation and “public outrage.”)
  • In Pennsylvania, a school district in a rural area is constructing a $5 million community center. The lease will say, “No groups in direct competition with the District are authorized to use the facility. Those groups in competition are defined as entities that serve the same purpose of the District at the same age level, i.e., charter schools.”
  • In Indianapolis, where only 25% of students pass standardized tests, a charter called Purdue Polytechnic High School tried to buy a vacant district building but the deal fell through because of district and union recalcitrance.

School Leaders Should Be Focused On Students, Not Real Estate

There are workarounds out there. For example, the Walton Family Foundation and the Local Initiatives Support Corporation just announced the winners of the Spark Opportunity Grant Program, 26 charter schools that will receive high-credit, low-interest loans for facilities, allowing for the creation of 20,000 additional charter seats across the country.

“Visionary school leaders and educators should be spending all of their time improving the lives of students, not on complex real estate transactions and building repairs,” said Walton Family Foundation K-12 Education Program Director Marc Sternberg. “These grants will drive more resources to teaching, learning and serving the needs of local communities.”

But until states start providing equitable funding, potentially visionary school leaders will remain preoccupied with real estate. In the case of Newark, a surly superintendent (who has demanded that four charters close by June) regards charter schools as a threat to a traditional district that is losing market share. 

What does it mean for Emma and her mom if the charter-unfriendly state Department of Education accedes to the superintendent’s demands? Like 86% of People’s Prep freshmen who came in from other Newark district middle schools, she began well below grade level in reading; like 72% of People’s Prep freshman, she began well below grade level in math. Now, like most of her classmates, she’s on track to earn her high school diploma, and, with the support of the school’s Alumni Support College Persistence Program, a college one too.

But if People’s Prep is evicted she could end up at nearby Newark Central High. There, although fewer students are economically disadvantaged and a comparable number are eligible for special education, the college enrollment rate 16 months after graduation is 41.6%, compared to 74% at Emma’s current school. 

Emma and her mom, who can’t afford to move out of Newark, may now face a transfer to a low-quality school, all because the system has been rigged against charter schools, even when they do their job well. If Emma was your daughter, which school would you choose? 

Laura Waters
Laura Waters is the founder and managing editor of New Jersey Education Report, formerly a senior writer/editor with brightbeam. Laura writes about New Jersey and New York education policy and politics. As the daughter of New York City educators and parent of a son with special needs, she writes frequently about the need to listen to families and ensure access to good public school options for ...

Join the Movement