Today at the National Alliance for Public Charter School’s National Charter School Conference being held in Nashville, Tennessee, the Walton Family Foundation is to announce a $250 million initiative to help charter schools obtain and expand permanent facilities. The goal of the program, according to Leslie Brody of the Wall Street Journal, is to add 250,000 seats in charters in 17 cities by 2027. About 2.7 million students currently receive their public education in charters with over a million pupils on waiting lists. In Washington D.C., charters educate almost 39,000 children with 8,500 trying to get in. Excitingly, the nation’s capital is one of 17 cities that are being targeted by the Walton Foundation for charter school growth.
Ms. Brody goes on to explain that the great majority of the Walton funding will go to “low interest loans, offered by nonprofit lenders, for which charters will be able to apply.” Of course, the obtaining of permanent facilities is the most significant obstacle charters face. The search and acquisition of buildings often results in a needless distraction for charter leaders away from their focus on the academic progress of their scholars. Many schools, due to the overwhelming difficulty in finding space, end up locating inappropriately and unfairly in church basements, warehouses, and storefronts. The Wall Street Journal article quotes Marc Sternberg, director of Walton’s K-12 education program and one of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s deputy chancellors, as saying that the dollars will “level the playing field” for charters in many cities.
The Walton Foundation plan is to be administered by Civic Builders, a not-for-profit New York City developer. David Umansky, the group’s CEO, states that the investment will allow charters to have broader access to commercial loans and other methods of borrowing. The initiative comes on top of the $116 million the Foundation has given since 2003 to assist charters in gaining places in which to operate.
This morning’s revelation is not completely a surprise. When I interviewed Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, a few weeks ago he informed me that a group of as many as 50 charter school stakeholders had been meeting to try and figure out a solution for the charter school facility dilemma.
The news comes on the 25th anniversary of the national charter school movement and during the 20th year of charters operating in Washington, D.C. It could not arrive at a better time. Our local sector has been stuck at teaching 44 percent of public school students for several years now and with more young families moving into the District there is an estimate that 50 new public schools will be needed within the next 10 years.