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Students at Freedom Prep, a charter school in Memphis, are welcomed on the first day of school in 2015.

Students at Freedom Prep, a charter school in Memphis, are welcomed on the first day of school in 2015.

Tennessee charter group wins $8 million grant for building needs

Tennessee charter leaders hope to turn a new $8 million federal grant into $50 million worth of improvements to charter school buildings over the next five years.

The award, announced Thursday, will help to address a significant challenge for the state’s burgeoning charter sector.

The grant comes from the U.S. Department of Education’s Credit Enhancement for Charter School Facilities Program. The goal is to use the money to leverage additional funding to invest $50 million in better facilities.

Through a new program of the Tennessee Charter School Center and the Low Income Investment Fund, charter school leaders can apply to receive financing to improve their buildings or purchase new ones. About 20 schools will be selected.

“We have seen an increased focus on the need for facilities support in conversation, legislation and even at the local district level,” said Cameron Quick, the center’s director of operations. “As each school is seeking ways to best house their students and build long-term success, we are excited that a program such as this will further enable them to understand and navigate the financial process much easier, better supported, and with more confidence.”

The announcement comes in the same year that Gov. Bill Haslam included a one-time, $6 million investment in the state’s budget to help Tennessee’s 100-plus charter schools with facilities. State lawmakers also passed a sweeping new charter school law in an effort to address such concerns.

In Memphis, home to most of the state’s charter schools, the board for Shelby County Schools approved a change in policy just this week that allows some charters to use district-owned buildings rent-free.

Tennessee’s charter schools have 20 percent less space per student than the national standard, according to the charter center, which also reports that 97 percent of the state’s charter schools have little to no outdoor space for their exclusive use.

Low Income Investment Fund, a California-based nonprofit, will help run the program and provide capital and facilities financing expertise.