K-12 Education:

Internal Controls for Program Management and Oversight Can Help Ensure the Success of School Choice Programs

GAO-16-212T: Published: Nov 4, 2015. Publicly Released: Nov 4, 2015.

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Jacqueline M. Nowicki
(617) 788-0580


Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800

What GAO Found

Students in the District of Columbia (District) have many choices for K-12 schooling including charter, magnet, and traditional public schools, as well as private schools through the federally funded Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP). Strong fiscal monitoring and oversight of the various schools that participate in choice programs is critical to ensuring that these programs have effective internal controls that help them meet the goal of providing a quality education to students. Internal control is broadly defined as a process designed to provide reasonable assurance that an organization can achieve its objectives. Five internal control standards—control environment, risk assessment, control activities, information and communication, and monitoring—should be an integral part of a system that managers use to regulate and guide an agency’s operations.

During GAO’s 2013 review of OSP, most families GAO spoke with were generally happy with their children’s participation in the program, citing increased safety and security at their children’s OSP schools and improved quality of education. However, GAO found weaknesses in three areas—access to timely and complete program and award information, effective controls to safeguard federal funds, and clearly defined and properly executed roles and responsibilities—that are the result of internal control deficiencies that may limit the effectiveness of OSP and its ability to meet its goal of providing a quality education experience for students in the District. Strong internal controls in these areas would strengthen the OSP and are critical to the success of any similar federally funded school voucher program.   

Why GAO Did This Study

School vouchers are one of many school choice programs. Vouchers provide students with public funds to attend private schools and are often featured in discussions on education reform. The District of Columbia’s (District) Opportunity Scholarship Program (OSP) has garnered national attention as the first federally-funded private school voucher program in the United States. Since the program’s inception, Congress has provided more than $180 million for OSP, which has, in turn, provided expanded school choice to low-income students by awarding more than 6,100 scholarships to low-income students in the District. GAO’s 2013 report was in response to a request from the Chairman of the Subcommittee on Financial Services and General Government, Committee on Appropriations, U.S. Senate that GAO review the extent to which OSP was meeting its stated goals and properly managing federal funds.

This statement is based on GAO’s 2013 report, and discusses the importance of ensuring effective implementation of OSP and any future similar federal school choice programs and providing sufficient accountability for public funds.

What GAO Recommends 

In 2013, GAO made 10 recommendations to Education to improve OSP. To date, one recommendation has been closed as implemented. In October 2015, Education told GAO that it had addressed some of the issues that GAO identified in the 2013 report, but GAO was unable to assess the extent to which they had implemented our recommendations in time for this statement. GAO continues to believe that the 2013 recommendations would address weaknesses previously identified in OSP, and would improve the implementation and effectiveness of OSP—and any future federally funded choice programs. 

For more information, contact Jacqueline M. Nowicki at 617.788.0580 or nowickij@gao.gov.

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