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Charter schools’ building costs cited

Report sees damage to education budgets; more public funding sought by supporters

As charter schools lobby the State House for increased funding for building improvements, they have a new tool to help them make their case: A report expected to be released Monday outlines the financial challenges faced by Massachusetts charter schools that lease or purchase their own facilities.

According to the study, published by two charter school advocacy groups, Massachusetts charter schools spend an average of $1,235 per student on facilities — $342 more than what they are provided by the state. To bridge that gap, charter schools must tap into their education budgets, using an average of 3 percent of funds that could otherwise go toward classroom learning.

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Charter school supporters are hoping the new research will buoy calls for their schools to receive a bigger piece of the state budget pie — despite concerns that a funding increase might divert resources from public schools

“Charter school students should have the same amount of money paid for their education as their peers in the community,” said Marc Kenen, executive director of the Massachusetts Charter Public School Association , which did not write the report but is helping to publish it. “We’re hoping that the Legislature will see that charter students are getting the short end of the stick.”

Charter schools currently must find a way to pay for their facilities through a mix of public and private funding.

The issue of how to finance charter school facilities has come to a head as charter schools have grown in popularity. In recent weeks, charter school advocates have encouraged legislators to abolish a state-imposed cap on the number of charter schools allowed to operate in low-performing school districts. According to the study, 78 percent of the state’s charter schools plan to increase enrollment by 2016. Most will need more classrooms and bigger buildings.

The 19-page study, conducted by the Colorado League of Charter Schools and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, was the product of in-depth surveys sent to the state’s 68 charter schools, 90 percent of which responded.

The study recommended increasing the per-pupil facilities allowance, as well as mandating that charter schools have first access to buying unused public schools.

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It gives the most detailed picture yet of the physical size of the state’s charter schools and sums they pay to lease or purchase buildings. The study recommended increasing the per-pupil facilities allowance, as well as mandating that charter schools have first access to buying unused public schools.

“More equitable facilities funding would allow public charter schools to allocate more operational dollars toward core educational items and enhance their ability to provide a well-rounded educational experience,” the report stated.

The Colorado League of Charter Schools and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools have conducted similar surveys in Colorado and a handful of other states, including Texas, Georgia, New York, and New Jersey.

Other education advocates said they are wary of charter schools’ demands for increased funding. Tom Scott, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents, said he is concerned that the limited pool of education funding could be drained by charter schools.

“The model of taking students from multiple grades, multiple classrooms, and multiple schools in a district does not equate to the per-pupil reduction to the district budget nor does it allow for reductions of classes or closure of schools in most cases,” Scott said in an e-mail. “Now we are suggesting that school districts across the Commonwealth who are waiting in line for much needed school replacements or major renovations should have additional competition for the dwindling resources available.”

Richard Stutman, president of the Boston Teachers Union, said charter schools do not require additional funding and are actually overfunded, because they do not educate costlier students, such as English-language learners or special education students.

“The students they educate are on the low cost, so they don’t need as much per student,” he said, adding that the suggestion that charter schools need more money is dishonest.

According to the study, charter schools have smaller building and classroom sizes than their regular public school counterparts. More than half of Massachusetts charter schools are at least 20 percent smaller — either in terms of the size of classrooms, or the gross square feet per student.

Additionally, 82 percent of charter schools are on properties that are 20 percent smaller than the state average.

Kenen said those shortcomings are usually most apparent in a lack of science labs, art rooms, playgrounds, and sports facilities. For most charter schools, “all the available resources go into academics,” Kenen said. “Some of the other aspects of the educational experience are not fully addressed.”

Matthew Wilder, spokesman for Boston Public Schools, said he did not believe the study’s call for increased funding to charter schools would necessarily hurt district schools also vying for more resources. Collaborative efforts, he said, could ensure that all schools in the area benefit from increased funding.

“The mayor has made it very clear that there needs to be a new era of cooperation between traditional public schools and charter schools,” Wilder said. “We’re past the time where we can really argue about these things.”

Kevin Andrews, founding headmaster of the Neighborhood House Charter School in Dorchester, said that after allocations from the state, his school must still pay $400,000 to $450,000 per year in loans to fund the school’s campus. Those costs are covered using private funds, he said — but many other charter schools do not have the same kind of access to outside resources.

“We’re not asking for the sky. We’re not asking for anything except fairness — and if you really look at the facts,” Andrews said, “you will clearly see that there is a gap that needs to be filled for charter schools.”

Martine Powers can be reached at mpowers@globe.com.
Follow her on Twitter
@martinepowers.

Correction: Because of incorrect information provided to the Globe, an earlier version of this story gave an incorrect percentage for the amount that Massachusetts charter schools must tap from their operating budgets to pay for leasing or buying facilities. That figure is 3 percent.

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