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A report in the Wall Street Journal describes the gold-rush atmosphere that attracts real estate investors to charter schools. The risk in the investment is diminished because the schools have a steady stream of government funds. The charters are almost always non-union. The biggest risk is that the people running the schools are unqualified to run a school and the school may fail.
Real-estate investors are showing an increasing interest in charter school development as the demand grows for classroom seats and some state and local governments become more willing to help finance charter-school projects.
Almost all charter schools are operated by nonprofit organizations. But these groups often rent and buy their buildings from private real-estate developers, and that is creating a new niche asset for some investors.
One of the latest entrants to the charter real-estate business is Northstar Commercial Partners, a Denver-based private-equity firm that is raising a $100 million fund. It will focus on converting charter schools out of vacant office, industrial and retail properties that can be purchased for less than half of what they would cost to build, according to Northstar Chief Executive Brian Watson.
Meanwhile, investment manager Bobby Turner, who founded Turner Impact Capital LLC in 2013, is raising his second fund with tennis legend Andre Agassi for building new charter schools, this one with a goal of $400 million.
And established players in the business are seeing volume increases on chart school developments. For example, a venture of HighMark School Development and EPR Properties, a real-estate investment trust, spent more than $118 million in 2014 on acquisition, renovation and construction, compared with $34 million in 2011.
“There’s no shortage of cash,” said Patrick Beausoleil, a HighMark vice president.
The rise in investment activity partly reflects the growth of the charter school movement, which has been overcoming political opposition in many states. During the 2014-2015 school year, 500 new public charter schools opened nationwide, for a total of more than 6,700 enrolling about 2.9 million students, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
Some states are beginning to make financing tools available to charter schools that had been limited to traditional public schools. For example, the states of Texas, Colorado and Utah now backstop tax exempt bond issues for some charter schools, reducing their capital costs when acquiring facilities, according to Scott Rolfs, managing director of B.C. Ziegler & Co., a niche investment-banking firm that has underwritten more than $600 million in charter school bonds.
But the growing role of for-profit real-estate developers has added a new dimension to the debate over charters, which are taxpayer funded and independently operated schools that are largely free of union rules. Critics say charter schools are in danger of cutting costly deals with developers who are more concerned with investment return than educating children. The result can lead to failed schools.
One of the biggest investment funds is the one created by Turner Impact Capital and tennis star Andre Agassi. Agassi is a high-school dropout. It seems that to start new charter schools, no education is necessary.