Private investors take look at charter schools

Charter schools, already seeing a surge in students, are getting attention from another group -- private investors.

Entertainment Properties Inc., known mostly for sinking its money into movie theaters and wineries, recently bought 22 locations from charter school operator Imagine Schools for about $170 million. The real estate investment trust acts as landlord, while Imagine operates the schools and is using the investment to expand its chain of 74 locations.

"They really are an effective source of long-term financing that we can rely on and enables us to do what we're best at, which is running schools, and do what they're best at, which is long-term real estate ownership," said Barry Sharp, chief financial officer for Arlington, Va.-based Imagine. "It's a good fit."

Charter school supporters hope the move by Kansas City-based Entertainment Properties is the first of many such partnerships as they deal with increased interest from parents but not more money to build or expand their facilities.

In the past decade, the number of U.S. charter schools has tripled to 4,618, while the number of students enrolled has almost quadrupled to more than 1.4 million, according to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.

While charter schools are publicly funded, they often don't have the same access to bonds and other financing available to mainstream public schools. That forces many to operate in places like storefronts or church basements.