While School Districts Around Country Search for Money, Vacant School Buildings Go to Waste

Selling or leasing public buildings to charter schools allows lawmakers to avoid the ugly choice between raising taxes or providing fewer services.

Time flies when you're wasting someone else's money. In 2010, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reported that the Milwaukee Public School District owned 27 empty school buildings and maintained them at a cost of $1 million per year. The district prevented charter schools and private schools from buying the properties out of fear that those schools would attract students from district public schools. Meanwhile, taxpayers were forced to keep footing the bill for vacant buildings.

Fast-forward to the present. Four years and $4 million taxpayer dollars later, district officials are still blocking charter schools and private schools from leasing the buildings, despite widespread public outcry. Wisconsin lawmakers even attempted to pass legislation to force Milwaukee school officials to keep an inventory of empty and underused school facilities and expedite the sale of the buildings but that measure was thwarted in the final days of the legislative session.

Two thousand miles southwest lies Tucson, Arizona, the nation's sixth-poorest metro area. The Tucson Unified School District has closed 19 buildings since 2010, and today, district officials have yet to repurpose all of the facilities. Once again, taxpayers are on the hook for millions in wasted payments. Just how much has been wasted is hard to say. In 2011, the district reported spending $450,000 per year to maintain nine of the empty buildings. To make matters worse, vandals have sprayed graffiti on some of the facilities, transforming these one-time community institutions into a blight for local residents.

Both Milwaukee and Tucson are cities struggling to improve educational opportunities for disadvantaged students. Milwaukee has a stubborn achievement gap between black and white students. In Tucson, the number of Hispanic families continues to grow, while the Latino graduation rate has continued to trail that of white, black, and Asian students for as far back as Arizona Department of Education data go. Yet Tucson school district officials rejected multiplecharter school networks' offers to purchase different sites, and Milwaukee officials blocked one of the city's highest-performing private schools from buying an empty building.

A fight over facility space between charter schools and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also went public earlier this year. The mayor voided agreements that four charter schools had established to share space with traditional schools and proposed cutting funds for new charter school construction. De Blasio's proposed budget reallocated $210 million from charter schools to other state programs. After public backlash over the proposals and even opposition from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, de Blasio found space for the schools that would have been given the boot inside of traditional public school buildings, though disagreement over the policy continues.

Limited access to vacant and partially empty public school buildings comes despite the success that some charter schools demonstrate. A 2009 study of New York City charter school students who won a lottery to attend found that these students had significantly higher scores in both math and reading than their peers that did not win a lottery to attend a charter school. Over 70,000 children attend charter schools in New York City, with 50,000 students on waiting lists, as depicted in films such as Waiting for Superman.

Charter schools are also booming in Arizona. More than 600 charter schools serve Arizona students, including two of the top five public schools in the country (one of which is located in Tucson). Some charter school advocates estimate that the state's charter school enrollment, which now accounts for 17 percent of public school students, may double by 2020.

In Milwaukee, home to the nation's longest-running school voucher program, 25,000 students use vouchers to attend private schools. Researchers have found that these students are more likely to graduate from high school and attend college than their peers at Milwaukee's traditional schools.

If student achievement in these communities isn't convincing, the money that can be made and saved by leasing or selling former public school buildings ought to be. Tucson faced a $17 million budget shortfall last year, and auditors suggest TUSD should close 11 more schools to help balance the budget. As of last October, Milwaukee was losing 1,000 students per year. Both districts should be actively looking for ways to make ends meet and generate new revenue. Helping charter schools and private schools access unused facilities gives families and students a wider range of educational options. It is also simply a more responsible use of taxpayer resources.

Metropolitan areas around the country are dealing with the same problem. Currently, Philadelphia is trying to sell 20 school buildings to help cover a $216 million budget gap. Washington, DC closed 15 schools in 2013, and the Detroit school district is looking to sell more than 80 school buildings.

Expediting the sale or lease of underused traditional public school buildings will allow lawmakers to avoid the ugly choice between raising taxes or providing fewer services to low-income families.

Policymakers don't have to choose in this case because a better use of vacant buildings will help taxpayers and students.

Jonathan Butcher is the Education Director at the Goldwater Institute.

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