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Long, long ago, almost everyone went to the neighborhood public school. The school had a principal, who was overseen by the superintendent. The superintendent answered to a local school board. Those were not idyllic times, to be sure, but no one ever imagined that there was profit to be found in the public schools, or that the public schools would one day be part of “the education industry.” All that is changed now. There are still neighborhood public schools, but now there is an industry that relies on entrepreneurs and market forces. You don’t have to be an educator to manage or operate or start a charter school (think tennis star Andre Agassi or football hero Deion Sanders). There are tax breaks for investors in charter schools. Charter school properties are bought and sold, like franchises or just ordinary real estate. They have no organic connection to the local community. The profit for entrepreneurs is to be found in the real estate transactions.
A recent real estate deal brought this change into focus. There is a buyer and a seller; there are investors. There is return on investment. The world has changed. The charter industry has profits and losses. They open and close. It is not about education. It is a business.
ESJ Capital Partners, based in the Miami area, added the schools to a portfolio that includes a number of more traditional investments, including apartment buildings, medical offices and tourist attractions.
But the firm also owns 28 charter school properties that they say are valued at more than $650 million.
The firm promises to “provide optimum returns for our investors through disciplined procedures, selective investment criteria and structured processes,” according to their website.
Although for-profit investment in charter schools accounts for only a small slice of the movement nationally, there are examples of commercial enterprise within the system.
In some instances, a lender might be able to take advantage of a tax break because of their investment in a school that is located in an economically challenged neighborhood. In other cases, an investor might be interested in the consistent, government-back rent that charters can pay.
There is probably far more invested by a handful of very wealthy patrons of charters, who view the movement has providing a much needed competition to traditional public schools.
Whether driven by profits or politics, the growing availability of financial support for charters is much needed, supporters say.
In comparison to traditional public schools, charters have much more difficulty borrowing money. The banking community has traditionally viewed charters operators has carrying far more risk of insolvency than traditional public schools.
Charters in most states must also pay for school improvements or new construction out of operating budgets.
A number of big philanthropic organizations have stepped in to improve the fiscal landscape for charter facilities.
The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation has been very active in the Los Angeles area, as has the Gates Foundation in Washington State.
Earlier this year, the Walton Family Foundation—led by the heirs of Walmart founder—announced the creation of two nonprofit entities to help finance the cost of building and maintaining new charter schools. Combined, the investment from the foundation is expected to be close to $300 million.
But there apparently is also money to be made too.
In 2016, ESJ sold five Florida charter schools for $72 million to Charter School Capital, a financial services company specializing in charter schools. The partners did provide the purchase price of the schools.
The partnership’s latest acquisition are schools located in in the Phoenix area, Washington D.C. and Toledo, Ohio.
All of them are operated by Virginia-based, Imagine Schools.
ESJ reportedly has $100 million invested in properties operated by Imagine Schools.
“The Imagine campuses that we just acquired have been open over 13 years and are thriving financially and academically, with consistent high enrollment,” Matthew Fuller, chief investment officer of ESJ, said in a statement.
According to a release from the partnership in announcing the 2016 transaction, ESJ was one of the first investment groups nationally to see the potential in charter schools.
“At the height of the Great Recession, ESJ identified a niche in developing charter schools as an alternative to their traditional commercial investments,” the release said. “The real estate asset management group predicted this asset type would evolve and scale into a mainstream, single tenant investment category, attracting more institutional investors, lenders and bondholders.”