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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In January 2014, the Department of Education issued updated non-regulatory guidance that clarifies charter school lottery requirements for charter schools that receive federal CSP funds. The guidance describes the limited circumstances under which charter schools receiving CSP funds may use weighted lotteries in admissions and provides guidance on how existing grantees may request permission to amend their applications to allow for the use of weighted lotteries. While the non-regulatory guidance does not specifically refer to charter schools located on military bases, it states that weighted lotteries may not be used for the purpose of creating schools exclusively to serve a particular subset of students and strongly encourages charter schools that use weighted lotteries to do so as part of a broader strategy that includes fulfillment of their existing responsibilities related to outreach, recruitment, and retention for all students, including educationally disadvantaged students.

    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: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In January 2014, the Department of Education issued updated non-regulatory guidance that clarifies charter school lottery requirements--the primary means by which charter schools exercise enrollment preferences--for charter schools that receive federal CSP funds. The guidance describes the limited circumstances under which charter schools receiving CSP funds may use weighted lotteries in admissions and provides guidance on how grantees may apply for permission to use weighted lotteries or request permission to amend current applications to allow for the use of weighted lotteries. More specifically, the updated guidance requires existing grant recipients to seek approval for using weighted lotteries by providing information on the circumstances in which the weighted lottery would be used, evidence that it is necessary to comply with federal or state law or state requirements, and the mechanisms that exist for oversight of lottery practices, among other things. Furthermore, according to Education's guidance, applicants for future grant competitions should provide the same information about any proposed weighted lotteries in grant applications as well.

    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: Department of Defense officials report the recommended standards and guidance have been drafted and are undergoing internal review. They said DOD has revised its timeline for finalizing the standards and guidance, and now expects to complete the internal review process this summer. DOD officals said once the standards are completed, the individual services will determine if they need to develop and issue service-specific guidance. The guidance, they said, includes an overview of charter school laws, describes the steps required to establish a charter school, and addresses specific issues related to establishing and operating a charter school on a military installation. DOD's Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA)has led development of the standards and guidance. GAO is encouraged by the progress DOD has made toward finalizing guidance for developing military base charter school and looks forward to its issuance 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 reports that the draft guidance and standards for charter schools on military bases is undergoing internal review. DOD officials said they anticipate completing the internal review process by the end of summer 2014. The guidance, they said, includes an overview of charter school laws, describes the steps required to establish a charter school, and addresses specific issues related to establishing and operating a charter school on a military installation. DoDEA has led development of the standards and guidance, coordinating with relevant DOD components to obtain their input. GAO is encouraged by DOD's progress toward issuance of this 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: Department of Defense officials report that the recommended standards and guidance have been drafted and are undergoing internal DOD review. They said DOD has revised its timeline for finalizing the standards and guidance, and now expects to complete the internal review process this summer. DOD officals said once the standards are completed, the individual services will determine if they need to develop and issue service-specific guidance. The guidance is reported to include an overview of charter school laws, a description of the steps required to establish a charter school, and to address specific issues related to establishing and operating a charter school on a military installation. DOD's Department of Defense Education Activity (DoDEA)has led development of the standards and guidance. GAO is encouraged by the progress DOD has made toward finalizing the standards and guidance and looks for forward to their completion and release. .

    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: Education expects to release a toolkit in the fall of 2014 for charter school developers who are considering opening a charter school on a military base. Education officials discussed the toolkit's development and progress in an April 2014 briefing of the joint Education/Department of Defense Working Group, which was formed under an interagency Memorandum of Understanding between Education and DOD. The joint Working Group also discussed ways to assist with dissemination of this resource once completed. In developing the toolkit, Education reported that the agency solicited and received comments on the toolkit's contents from DOD and from the individual military services. According to Education, the toolkit was designed to be released at the same time as DOD's standards for charter schools on military bases. To be useful for base commanders and school planners, the charter school toolkit, when issued, should discuss both startup and operational challenges for charter schools on military bases, including how military base charter schools have addressed these challenges.

    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: DoDEA officials said they have developed a webpage with Education that provides charter school resouces (http://www.charterschoolcenter.org/priority-area/military-families). the website features a variety of reports about charter schools on military, including GAO's 2013 report and DOD's 2012 report profiling charter schools on 7 military bases. The site also provides information on funding and education and training materials for charter school staff. GAO is encouraged that DOD has an active Web presence that provides some information about schools on military bases.

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