D.C. Charter Schools:

Strengthening Monitoring and Process When Schools Close Could Improve Accountability and Ease Student Transitions

GAO-06-73: Published: Nov 17, 2005. Publicly Released: Nov 17, 2005.

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D.C. has a larger percentage of students in charter schools than any state. To help oversee D.C. charter schools, Congress established two authorizers--the Board of Education (BOE), which has an Office of Charter Schools responsible for oversight, and the independent Public Charter School Board (PCSB). Congress required the GAO to conduct a study of the authorizers. This report--which completes GAO's May 2005 study--examines the (1) authorizers' resources, (2) oversight practices, and (3) actions taken once charter schools close. GAO examined BOE and PCSB monitoring reports, revenue and expenditure documents, and closure procedures.

The two D.C. charter school authorizers differed in revenue, number of staff overseeing schools, and use of D.C. services, but both spent their funds to support oversight activities. The BOE Office of Charter Schools had less revenue and fewer staff overseeing fewer schools than PCSB. It fulfilled its oversight responsibilities by using some D.C. Public School services and also occasionally calling upon D.C. agencies for financial operations reviews. The PCSB had a larger staff that oversaw more schools and had revenue more than two times larger than that of the BOE Office of Charter Schools. The PCSB did not use any D.C. Public Schools services, but did refer one school to a D.C. agency for further examination. Despite these differences, both authorizers used most of their fiscal year 2004 expenses for in-house board operations, such as personnel, and also hired consultants to help monitor charter schools. Both D.C. authorizers provided technical assistance to schools and had similar oversight practices, such as tracking school academics and finances, but took different approaches. The BOE Office of Charter Schools, with only 3 staff, provided the same level of oversight to all of its 16 schools and thereby limited its ability to target additional resources to schools requiring more assistance. Moreover, when the BOE Office of Charter Schools gave its Board monitoring information on its charter schools, the Board--also responsible for the city's 167 traditional schools--did not regularly review that information. In contrast, the PCSB targeted additional oversight on new charter schools and those where problems had been identified. The PCSB also granted more flexibility to well-managed schools. Although problems persisted at some schools, the PCSB's targeted system enabled it to focus more attention on these schools. Once D.C. charter schools closed, both authorizers took a number of actions to safeguard student records and public assets and inform parents of their children's educational options; however, issues arose that both authorizers found difficult to adequately address, particularly when the closed school was insolvent. Managing and safeguarding student records was the most expensive and challenging aspect of closing schools, authorizers reported. Moreover, the authorizers' closure processes were different each of the 9 times charter schools closed, which limited opportunities to build on past experiences.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Public Charter School Board (PCSB) has taken steps to create a routine process for the closure of the charter schools it has authorized. In particular, that process will ensure the secure maintenance and transfer of student records. Furthermore, pending legislation before the DC Council would establish a routine process for the disposition of charter school assets for all charter schools in the District of Columbia. In August 2009, PCSB confirmed that certain standard elements of the school closure process have been applied to all charter school closures to date, and that the secure transfer of student records is a priority. In addition, in June 2010, we confirmed that the PCSB had documented charter revocation and surrender protocols in place and had implemented these protocols in closing charter schools. These protocols include responsibilities for PCSB, charter schools, and DCPS. Specifically, the protocols include responsibilities for PCSB and DCPS in the transfer of student records.

    Recommendation: To help alleviate confusion among parents, students and school administrators following the closure of a charter school and to help the D.C. authorizers close schools efficiently, the BOE Office of Charter Schools, the PCSB and D.C. Public Schools should establish a routine process when schools close, including, among other things, a system for the secure transfer and maintenance of student records.

    Agency Affected: District of Columbia: Board of Education

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In Spring 2010, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education (OSSE) established a working group on the closing of charter schools that included representatives from both OSSE and PCSB. OSSE is issuing a policy on the closing of charter schools that is aligned very closely with PCSB's existing policy and which they believe reflects good business practice. The policy will be issued in September. Responsibility for addressing this recommendation transferred from DCPS to OSSE, which is the state education agency now responsible for setting statewide policies, providing resources and support, and exercising accountability for all public education in DC.

    Recommendation: To help alleviate confusion among parents, students and school administrators following the closure of a charter school and to help the D.C. authorizers close schools efficiently, the BOE Office of Charter Schools, the PCSB and D.C. Public Schools should establish a routine process when schools close, including, among other things, a system for the secure transfer and maintenance of student records.

    Agency Affected: District of Columbia: Board of Education

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Office of Charter Schools has created a checklist for closing a charter school, including action items such as the disposition of student records, final financial reports, the status of accounts, the final personnel register, steps to alert parents, and other items. This list is based on a pre-existing list. Additionally, in January 2006, the Board of Education (BOE) asked the DC Council for legislation providing for the disposition of closed charter schools' assets. This legislation, which would ensure a uniform, systematic, and routine process for the disposition of assets for all charter schools District-wide, is pending. When the DC Public Charter School Board (PCSB) subsumed the BOE in June 2007, confirmed in August 2007 that it will apply its standard school closure process to the former BOE schools. In August 2009, PCSB confirmed that certain standard elements of the school closure process have been applied to all school closures, and that the secure transfer of student records is a priority. In addition, in June 2010, we confirmed that the PCSB had documented charter revocation and surrender protocols in place and had implemented these protocols in closing charter schools. These protocols include responsibilities for PCSB, charter schools, and DCPS. Specifically, the protocols include responsibilities for PCSB and DCPS in the transfer of student records.

    Recommendation: To help alleviate confusion among parents, students and school administrators following the closure of a charter school and to help the D.C. authorizers close schools efficiently, the BOE Office of Charter Schools, the PCSB and D.C. Public Schools should establish a routine process when schools close, including, among other things, a system for the secure transfer and maintenance of student records.

    Agency Affected: District of Columbia: Board of Education

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Board of Education (BOE) Office of Charter Schools (OCS) prepared a solicitation and scope of work for a financial analyst to identify charter schools' risk factors and a process for reviewing financial audits and reports. The OCS expects the deliverable to be a process for OCS to systematically review a set of risk factors for each school, such as cash flow, ratio of liabilities to assets, debt structure, etc. This will give the BOE an objective way to identify an "at-risk" school. Additionally, the BOE has hired a contractor to monitor the opening of charter schools. When the BOE transitioned to the DC Public Charter School Board (PCSB) in 2007, the PCSB indicated that it would continue to apply the risk-based monitoring process to the former BOE schools. In August 2009, PCSB confirmed that it has, in fact, applied its risk-based monitoring process to these schools.

    Recommendation: To ensure that D.C. charter schools authorized by the BOE receive appropriate oversight, the BOE Office of Charter Schools should implement a risk-based oversight system that targets additional monitoring resources to new charter schools and those identified at risk.

    Agency Affected: District of Columbia: Board of Education

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Board of Education established a charter school committee in October 2005. The committee meets monthly and reports to the full Board at its regular monthly meetings. In this way, it has created a mechanism to ensure the timely review of monitoring information, including audits, compiled by the Office of Charter Schools.

    Recommendation: Additionally, the BOE should create a routine and timely process to review the monitoring information, including audit reports, collected by its Office of Charter Schools.

    Agency Affected: District of Columbia: Public Schools

 

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