Charter Schools:

To Enhance Education's Monitoring and Research, More Charter School-Level Data Are Needed

GAO-05-5: Published: Jan 12, 2005. Publicly Released: Jan 12, 2005.

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Charter schools are public schools that are granted increased autonomy by states in exchange for meeting specified academic goals. State law determines who approves the formation of a charter school, often the board of education. As public schools, charter schools are subject to the performance requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA) as well. In this environment, states' systems for allowing charter schools flexibility and ensuring school performance and financial integrity assume greater importance. GAO examined (1) how states allow charter schools flexibility, (2) how states promote accountability for school performance and financial integrity for charter schools, (3) the implications of NCLBA for charter schools, and (4) the role the Department of Education (Education) plays in charter school accountability. GAO surveyed the 39 states and jurisdictions with operating charter schools in 2002-03 and interviewed charter school experts and Education officials.

In school year 2002-03, some states reported that they provided charter schools flexibility by allowing them to choose their authorizer. Authorizers--state education agencies, local education agencies, universities, and other nonprofit organizations--oversee the formation and operation of charter schools. Also, nearly all states provided flexibility by releasing charter schools from some traditional public school requirements, such as teacher hiring and termination practices, schedules, and collective bargaining agreements. To promote charter school performance and financial integrity, states reported that they took action to oversee charter schools and to oversee and provide assistance to authorizers. About half of the 39 states reported having primary responsibility for enforcing school improvement actions in charter schools not achieving annual school performance goals under NCLBA. Most states reported that they intervened when authorizers were not performing their responsibilities and conducted or required audits of authorizers' finances. About half of the states assisted authorizers with funding for their charter school oversight responsibilities or gave them fee collection authority. NCLBA requires charter schools to meet the same requirements as other public schools, but the law permits certain flexibilities where allowed by state law. Charter schools must be included in the statewide assessment system, and charter schools that receive NCLBA Title I funds must take school improvement actions if they do not meet state performance goals. However, NCLBA allows state law to determine the entity responsible for charter school oversight. In addition, while NCLBA requires certification for all other teachers to meet the highly qualified teacher requirement, the law exempts charter school teachers from this requirement where state law permits. As it does for all public schools, Education administers grant programs that provide funds to charter schools, monitors grant performance, and sponsors research on accountability for academic performance and financial integrity. Under NCLBA, the department and states must ensure that new and expanding charter schools receive timely payment of federal grant funds for which they are eligible and meet the act's academic achievement goals. However, in its monitoring and data collection, Education gathers little information on the timeliness of charter school grant payments or how well the schools perform. Moreover, Education's Office of the Inspector General (OIG) reported delays in states' Title I payments to charter schools. Education is in the process of developing new systems that are expected to provide both academic performance and financial reports for the department's major grant programs, but the ability of the new systems to provide financial reports for charter schools is uncertain.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To help the department in carrying out its responsibilities related to monitoring federal funds for charter schools and to provide further information on charter schools as an educational reform, the Secretary of Education should support implementation of the PBDMI's financial performance information component by assisting states in developing automated financial information systems to measure and track the disbursement of funds to the charter school level.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Education developed a national-level Charter School Program (CSP) grantee data base that links school-level CSP grant award amounts and indicators of program accomplishment. In February 2008, Education's contractor WestEd linked grant award amounts and program performance information from the data collection form for all CSP grantees that it developed to EDFacts, Education's new national-level performance-based data system that replaced the PBDMI. The financial information collected has allowed Education not only to monitor disbursement of CSP program funds to the charter school level, but also to use the financial information in assessing program performance.

    Recommendation: To help the department in carrying out its responsibilities related to monitoring federal funds for charter schools and to provide further information on charter schools as an educational reform, the Secretary of Education should require Charter School Program grantees to include in their annual performance reports standard indicators of program accomplishments, in particular, the number of schools started through use of grant funds.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: To address this recommendation, the Department of Education developed an automated data collection form for Charter School Program (CSP) performance information and requires CSP grantees to complete it annually. In 2006, Education contracted with WestED to create a CSP grantee data collection form to collect data annually on program accomplishments, including grant funds obligated and the number of schools started with the use of grant funds. The data collection form was sent initially to CSP grantees in May 2007.

    Recommendation: To help the department in carrying out its responsibilities related to monitoring federal funds for charter schools and to provide further information on charter schools as an educational reform, the Secretary of Education should require that the planned charter school impact evaluation design include an analysis of the effects of accountability practices on charter schools' performance.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

    Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2008, Education developed measures of charter school student achievement, based on No Child Left Behind Act (NCLBA) proficiency rates, for all charter schools. For Charter School Program (CSP) grantees, these measures serve as additional indicators of charter school-level program performance. The measures are calculated annually in the national-level CSP grantee data base by linking school-level CSP grantee data, including grant funds obligated and the number of schools started with the use of grant funds, with NCLBA student achievement data from EdFacts. Moreover, because EdFacts links to the Consolidated State Performance Report, which includes information on NCLBA accountability practices for all charter schools, including those that receive CSP funds, Education is able to develop NCLBA performance information for all charter schools annually.

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