Charter Schools:

Guidance Needed for Military Base Schools on Startup and Operational Issues

GAO-13-67: Published: Feb 5, 2013. Publicly Released: Feb 5, 2013.

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What GAO Found

Eight charter schools were located on domestic military bases and one charter school was being developed on a base at the time of GAO's review. The military base charter schools differed in their academic focuses and served militaryconnected students to different degrees. For example, one school focused on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics while another used the arts to teach all subjects. Enrollment of military-connected students at these base charter schools ranged from 42 percent to 90 percent, and three schools used preferences to ensure a higher proportion of these students. For example, one charter school with a stated mission of educating military-connected children gave first preference to children of active-duty personnel, who represented the preponderance of enrolled students. The schools were established to address different interests, including family perceptions about the quality of education in local school districts and military officials' need to attract and retain military families to bases. In some instances the impetus for establishing a charter school on a military base originated with private entities. For example, a private developer hired to build housing on the base worked with a charter management organization to develop a charter school they thought would make living on the base more attractive to military families.

Charter school officials cited several challenges to starting up and operating on military bases, such as using enrollment preferences for military-connected students, providing civilian access to schools, and obtaining facilities. Most states require schools to be open to all students, and when organizers of one school sought to enroll solely military-connected students, state law prohibited this because of the state's open enrollment requirements. Some states have changed or interpreted their charter school laws to enable schools to give enrollment preference to military-connected students. Furthermore, two charter schools that have enrollment preferences for military-connected students have received Department of Education (Education) Charter Schools Program (CSP) grants, which require charter schools to provide all students an equal opportunity to attend the school and admit students by lottery if there are more applicants than spaces available. Although these military base charter schools have received these grants, Education has expressed concern that the use of such enrollment preferences would violate CSP program requirements. Charter schools have also encountered operational challenges. For example, access for civilians can be difficult. Nearly all the military base charter schools were located behind the base's security gate, requiring civilians to complete a background check and show a pass. Several school officials reported difficulties conducting school activities such as open houses and sporting events because each base had a limit on the number of security passes for civilians. Like other charter schools, military base charter school officials also reported obstacles to obtaining facilities, such as financing. However, they also encountered unique challenges, such as complex military facility and land leases. Several school and military base officials said that having guidance and more information sharing could help with startup and operational challenges charter schools on military bases face. However, there is currently little guidance or information sharing about military base charter schools.

Why GAO Did This Study

Many families struggle to balance their job demands with ensuring that their children have access to a high-quality education, and for military families this struggle can be exacerbated by the highly mobile nature of their service. Family concerns about education affect readiness and retention of military personnel, according to the Department of Defense (DOD). The majority of children of military families in the United States attend public schools. A 2008 DOD study recommended offering military families a public charter school option in areas with poorly-performing local schools. In response to a directive in a House Appropriations Committee report, GAO examined: (1) the characteristics and origins of charter schools on military installations, and (2) the challenges charter schools on military installations have faced in starting up and continuing their operations.

To conduct this review, GAO interviewed officials in the eight charter schools on domestic military bases and one school being planned; visited two schools; interviewed Education and DOD officials; and reviewed relevant federal and state laws, federal regulations and guidance, and school, federal agency, and other documents.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that Education clarify whether military base charter schools that use enrollment preferences are eligible for charter school grants and that DOD and Education take actions to help address startup and operational challenges for these schools. In their responses, DOD and Education agreed with GAO’s recommendations.

For more information, contact George A. Scott (202) 512-7215 or scottg@gao.gov.

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 ensure that Charter Schools Program grants are provided only to schools that meet eligibility criteria, the Secretary of Education should direct the Charter Schools Program office to revise the Charter Schools Program guidance to clarify CSP grant requirements regarding charter school enrollment preferences, including preferences for military-connected students, such as whether schools can hold separate lotteries for military-connected and civilian students and the extent to which schools can enroll military-connected students under work-site exemptions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

    Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Education stated that it will review its current non-regulatory guidance to determine how it can clarify admissions and lottery requirements for charter schools that receive federal CSP funds and are located on military bases. Education has not indicated a timeframe for its review and implementation of clarifications to guidance.

    Recommendation: To ensure that Charter Schools Program grants are provided only to schools that meet eligibility criteria, the Secretary of Education should direct the Charter Schools Program office to revise the Charter Schools Program guidance to require applicants for CSP grants and subgrants to describe any enrollment preferences in their applications.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

    Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Education stated that it will ask applicants for CSP funds to describe their enrollment preferences in the applicant's grant application and that it will revise its grant notices accordingly to reflect this requirement. Education did not provide a timeframe for implementing this new requirement in grant applications and notices.

    Recommendation: To address the specific needs of military communities that charter schools on bases serve while preserving the public mission of charter schools, the Secretary of Defense should develop and set standards for operating charter schools on military bases and require the appropriate military services to create guidance based on those standards. The guidance should describe the requirements and allowable practices for establishing and operating charter schools on military bases. At a minimum, this guidance should address the appropriate role of military base command and other DOD offices and agencies in supporting the creation and operation of charter schools.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Defense reports that it is leading an interagency effort to develop guidance for operating charter schools on military bases. According to DoD, the interagency group includes DoD components, the military services, and the U.S. Department of Education. DoD said that it expects to issue the guidance in Spring 2014. This guidance should address the appropriate role of military base command and other DOD offices and agencies in supporting the creation and operation of charter schools, among other requirements and allowable practices. GAO is encouraged by these plans for developing such guidance and looks forward to its completion and implementation.

    Recommendation: To address the specific needs of military communities that charter schools on bases serve while preserving the public mission of charter schools, the Secretary of Defense should develop and set standards for operating charter schools on military bases and require the appropriate military services to create guidance based on those standards. The guidance should describe the requirements and allowable practices for establishing and operating charter schools on military bases. At a minimum, this guidance should address reasonable base access and security arrangements for civilian children, parents, and others involved in a military base charter school.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Defense has reported it is working collaboratively with the Department of Education, DoD components, and the military services to develop new guidance for military charter schools. DoD expects to issue the guidance in 2014 and plans to include information about the process of starting a charter school and operating a charter school on a military installation in the guidance. This guidance should address the requirements and allowable practices for base access and security arrangements for civilian children, parents, and others involved in a military base charter school. GAO is encouraged by these plans for developing military base charter school guidance and looks forward to its completion and implementation.

    Recommendation: To address the specific needs of military communities that charter schools on bases serve while preserving the public mission of charter schools, the Secretary of Defense should develop and set standards for operating charter schools on military bases and require the appropriate military services to create guidance based on those standards. The guidance should describe the requirements and allowable practices for establishing and operating charter schools on military bases. At a minimum, this guidance should address military lease arrangements and other property-related issues for a charter school on a base.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: The Department of Defense has reported that it is working collaboratively with the Department of Education, DoD components, and the military services to develop new guidance for establishing and operating charter schools on military bases. DoD expects to issue the guidance in 2014. The guidance should include information on military lease arrangements and other property-related issues for charter schools on bases. GAO is encouraged by these plans for developing such guidance and looks forward to its completion and implementation.

    Recommendation: To serve as a resource for military base communities exploring educational options, as stated in their 2008 Memorandum of Understanding, the Secretaries of DOD and Education should facilitate the sharing of information among interested parties such as base commanders and school planners and officials on how military base charter schools have addressed startup and operational challenges.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

    Status: Open

    Comments: Acknowledging the importance of working with the Department of Defense, Education stated that it will facilitate information sharing through its joint Working Group with DOD that was formed under the Education-DOD Memorandum of Understanding. Education noted that they will use the Working Group to share information on the challenge of startup through newsletters, conferences, publications, panel discussions and websites. Education has not indicated a timeframe for implementing information sharing on how military base charter schools have addressed startup and operational challenges. Education should ensure that such information is relevant to the needs of base commanders and school planners.

    Recommendation: To serve as a resource for military base communities exploring educational options, as stated in their 2008 Memorandum of Understanding, the Secretaries of DOD and Education should facilitate the sharing of information among interested parties such as base commanders and school planners and officials on how military base charter schools have addressed startup and operational challenges.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: The DoDEA stated that it is working with the Department of Education to serve as a resource for military base communities exploring their educational options by sharing information on how military base charter schools have addressed startup and operational challenges. Specifically, DoDEA and the Department of Education have established a website that provides information about addressing these challenges. GAO encourages DOD to continue working with Education to provide military base communities with resources for addressing charter school startup and operational challenges.

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