A new bill is taking aim at what has long been coveted by charter school operators: dedicated money for their buildings.
Nevada charter schools receive per-pupil dollars from the state’s distributive schools account, but they receive no facility funding, which is generated at the county level through property taxes. School districts receive both.
Charter school officials say that translates into an additional $1,200 per pupil for school districts.
“That inequity does not sit right with me,” said state Sen. Carrie Buck (R-Clark) on Wednesday during a press conference announcing the introduction of a bill that would start to close that funding gap.
Buck, a Clark County School District principal turned charter school leader, is currently president of The Pinecrest Foundation, where she raises private money for the Pinecrest network of charter schools.
Senate Bill 333 would raise $10 million in public funding for charter school facilities by creating a corporate tax credit program. Businesses would donate money to a charter school facilities fund in exchange for a credit on their modified business tax. The money collected would then be distributed to charter schools based on the number of students enrolled who qualify for free or reduced lunch.
Proponents of the bill are calling it an innovative way to better fund charter schools that serve low-income students.
Renee Fairless, principal of Mater Academy East in Las Vegas, said 15% of her school’s per-pupil dollars are spent on facility costs.
“Every dollar that goes to the facility, it takes away from student need,” she added.
Mater’s student body is 100% free and reduced lunch eligible, making it the ideal beneficiary of SB 333.
“Think about how much you could pay your staff,” Buck said.
Added Fairless, “Think if that money wasn’t being spent on facilities — the interventionists that could be brought in.”
Under the measure, when a business contributed money to a charter school, the business’s state tax bill, along with state revenue, would be reduced by the same amount.
If passed into law and fully funded by businesses seeking tax credits, SB 333 would not get charter schools to facility funding parity with districts, but “it’s a small amount to be able to start this somewhere,” says the first-term senator.
Buck also believes the availability of facility funding for schools serving low-income students would incentivize new charter schools in low-income neighborhoods. One of the biggest criticisms lobbed at charter schools is their lack of diversity compared to the state population. According to Nevada Department of Education data, 39.4% of students enrolled in state-sponsored charter schools qualify for free or reduced lunch (FRL), whereas 72.5% of students statewide do.
Similarly, charter schools lag in enrollment of students with individualized education plans (IEP) and English language learners (ELL).
State-sponsored charter schools enroll 10.9% of students statewide. For comparison, Washoe County School District enrolls 13.3% and CCSD enrolls 65.5% of students statewide. Nevada’s rural county school districts make up the remaining 10.2% of enrollment.
And charter schools are growing at a faster pace than public school districts.
The 2019 Democratic-controlled Legislature scrapped a proposed moratorium on charter school growth and instead passed a bill requiring the use of an “academic and demographic needs assessment” during the approval process. New charter schools are supposed to address at least one of the following target areas: students with specialized needs (meaning FRL, IEP and ELL students), neighborhoods with low-performing schools, or credit-deficient students at risk of not graduating.
Whether Democrats will embrace SB 333 remains to be seen. The bill has not been scheduled for a hearing.
Charter schools are considered public schools because they receive public funds. However, they are by design not subject to all of the same regulations as district schools. Increased autonomy is supposed to allow for better student outcomes.
But that autonomy comes with a trade-off.
Charter schools currently have the ability to hire unlicensed, non-unionized teachers. They also do not have to offer transportation for students who don’t live within walking distance. Flexibility in areas like transportation and teacher salaries allow charter schools to save money. (Notably, school districts do not receive dedicated transportation funds.)
But the lack of dedicated facilities funding results in expenses for them that district schools don’t have.
Many charter schools operate out of retrofitted former storefronts or space inside other schools or organizations’ buildings that they rent.
But many charter schools have found other means to get new school facilities built. As its name implies, the Turner-Agassi Charter School Facilities Fund, exists specifically to help charter schools secure their own facilities.
Such private investment funds enjoy lucrative federal tax benefits that make them attractive to investors, and have long been a facility funding model for charter schools. The charter school pays the investment fund for a facility with school revenue, that is, public money provided to the schools by the state.
Mater Academy East is in the process of building a new facility with the help of Turner-Agassi. Mater is one of multiple charter schools in Nevada and nationwide operated by the Florida-based charter school management company Academica. Turner-Agassi and Academica have already cooperated to build several charters school facilities in Nevada.
The new Mater Academy East campus will cost the school $2.1 million per year, according to Principal Fairless. Unless something changes, that money will be paid out of the school’s base per-pupil money.
So too will $43,000 worth of air conditioning repairs the school recently determined it needed at its current location. Fairless said she’s still figuring out how to pay for that.
School districts have their own facility concerns, of course. Many district schools are aging and in need of repair.
But Fairless and Buck say they don’t see the issue as being charter school versus district school.
“When I look at 15% of my budget for facility, and the district never has to think about that, there’s something wrong about that,” said Fairless. ‘What I do think is it’s nothing a principal should ever think about.”