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COMMENTARY: Putting Nevada charter shools on an equal footing

In late November, Coral Academy of Science broke ground on a new school at Nellis Air Force Base. For the past couple of years, the school had been operating out of an old school building constructed in the 1950s—and it showed its age. As one teacher told a local reporter, “We have trouble with heating and air conditioning units constantly … plumbing, windows that have been broken and boarded up.”

The new school building will allow Coral Academy to teach its students in a facility as outstanding as the education it’s providing. Coral Academy schools are consistently ranked among the best in the state — but like all charter schools, they have to overcome hurdles.

Most charter schools in Nevada scramble to find spaces suitable for running a high-quality public school. The reason is simple: When it comes to funding for school facilities, public school students aren’t all treated equally. Those who attend district-run schools receive capital funding to maintain good buildings — more than $1,200 per student each year, according to the SAGE Commission. When new buildings are necessary, county school districts can issue bonds backed by taxpayers to borrow at preferred rates.

Charter schools in Nevada don’t have these options. Instead, charter schools must finance and maintain facilities on their own, as Coral Academy did with its new school at Nellis. The result is that charter schools typically have to pay more to borrow funds, and they have to use operational dollars to pay for building and maintenance costs. Money that should be spent on instruction gets diverted to facilities.

Even finding suitable facilities is a challenge. Nevada’s population is booming. There aren’t many empty school buildings lying around — new ones have to be constructed. Until charter schools can pull together the funds to do that, they often resort to temporary, makeshift buildings such as churches (when they aren’t being used for religious services), office buildings and converted retail spaces.

Despite these obstacles, charter schools are still bringing high-quality school choices to Nevada families. Just think how much more effective they could be if they received the same facilities funding that district schools receive.

It’s time for state lawmakers to step up to the plate. Charter school students are public school students, so they deserve to have access to the same school-funding resources that benefit students in district schools. The SAGE Commission offered recommendations that the state should pursue.

One is to provide a per-student allotment for charter schools specifically to buy, lease and maintain school buildings so that charter schools don’t have to dip into operational classroom funds to pay for their facilities.

A second recommendation is to allow charter schools to receive a portion of any new school bond proceeds. The funding can be targeted to high-performing charter schools and those serving high-need student populations to help ensure access to good schools for more students. Whether charter schools are run by the state or the county, they are public schools, so their students deserve access to bond funds that are designated for public school facilities.

Several federal programs also help charter schools access credit markets to buy, lease or renovate facilities. These programs are currently limited in scope and funding and should be strengthened so that more charter schools can access them.

Infrastructure spending could be another way for the federal government to fund school construction. Given the way the new year started, it may seem impossible to think that congressional Democrats and President Donald Trump could agree on anything. But both have spoken favorably of increased infrastructure spending, so the time may be right for this critical investment in our nation’s students.

All of our elected leaders have a role to play in giving more students access to a high-quality public education. Ask charter school parents and they’ll tell you they are thrilled to have the opportunity to choose a charter school for their child. By giving charter schools fair funding for facilities, we can expand these options to more families and ensure that every public school student goes to school in a building made for learning.

Pat Hickey, a former Nevada assemblyman, is executive director of the Charter School Association of Nevada. Nina Rees is president and chief executive officer of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, the national advocacy arm of the charter school movement.

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