School Buildings in Need of Children (and Vice Versa)
It's no secret that Ohio's school funding system is deeply troubled (see here and here). But when it comes to ensuring its youngsters attend gleaming new district schools, Ohio is delivering. The state has dedicated almost $5 billion toward facilities construction since 1997--not counting local contributions from levy and bond issues. By the end of 2005, the Ohio School Facilities Commission (OSFC), which oversees and disburses state funds for school facilities projects, had completed 411 buildings across the state, and well over 250 more projects are in design or currently under construction (see here).
There is good reason to be sanguine about such a flurry of activity. Beyond signaling an investment in future generations, new school construction or renovation--when coupled with a good instructional program--can pay dividends for student learning by providing suitable learning environments, deterring absenteeism, and keeping good teachers in classrooms (see here).
Yet too many students in Ohio's urban areas are not reaping the benefits of the state's ambitious school construction project.
Part of the problem stems from steep declines in enrollment in many urban districts as more and more students leave troubled district schools to attend charter schools or families relocate to homes in suburban districts. From 1997 to 2006, the five major urban districts (Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dayton, and Toledo) lost over 52,000 students. Of the five districts, Cleveland lost 16,630 students over the nine year span, Cincinnati lost almost 11,000, and Dayton shed just under 10,000.
As a result, many districts have turned to new school construction as a strategy for drawing students back to their classrooms--so far, with mixed results. In Columbus, two new district elementary schools are drawing more students (see here) despite their ratings of Academic Watch, the equivalent of a "D." Yet in Cleveland only two of the district's seven new schools have reached capacity (see here). Cincinnati Public Schools will announce its revamped building plans in the face of grim student enrollment projections. And in Springfield, school board members recently discussed closing one of their brand new schools due to poor enrollment figures (see here).
At the same time, the 72,000-plus students now attending Ohio's charter schools get no benefit from the OSFC's efforts. State law prohibits charters from accessing facility dollars and as a result, they often operate in strip malls, converted church facilities, and even modular or portable buildings. While many state officials have strongly urged traditional districts to lease extra space to charter schools at market-rate, this is rarely the case. Thus, as urban districts race to complete more new schools, surplus school buildings lie fallow and even some new ones have too few students to fill them.
Such idle space is not only a waste of taxpayer dollars--often gleaned from hard-won levy or bond campaigns--but also a clear indicator of the strained relations between districts and charter schools. Yet while charters and districts may always compete for students (all the better, since competition can spur much-needed reform in both), they shouldn't, and indeed do not have to, compete for suitable school facilities.
So how do districts and charters find common ground where all students can benefit from new or renovated facilities? One answer is to provide incentives for districts and charters to partner. For instance, in exchange for leasing suitable facilities to charters at minimal rates, districts might be allowed to count charter students when applying for facility allotments (calculated on the basis of student enrollment), or even include charter students' test scores with those of the district. And charters should be provided incentives--perhaps the promise of cheap facilities or even new district school buildings--to strive for success beyond just enrolling students. Together, such incentives could encourage beneficial partnerships between districts and charters and refocus both state and local facilities projects on the important task at hand: providing suitable learning environments for all of Ohio's children.