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Chapter 5
Conclusion and Evaluation Plans for Year 2 and Year 3

The findings that emerged from the Year 1 data collection and analyses provide initial answers to the six broad research questions that guide the national evaluation of the Public Charter Schools Program?always bearing in mind that the perspectives represented in this report are only those of state charter school coordinators and a nonrepresentative sample of charter school authorizers. In this final chapter, the Year 1 themes and findings are recapped in the context of their contribution to (1) a future summative understanding of the PCSP?s role in the growth and development of the charter school movement and (2) a deepening of knowledge about the charter school sector of the education system, with a particular emphasis on the flexibility-accountability continuum. The six broad research questions serve as the organizers for the chapter. Within each section, the team?s current knowledge base is summarized, along with the questions that remain to be addressed and the upcoming data collection activities. The chapter concludes with a brief section on the perspectives of state charter school coordinators and representatives of charter school authorizers about the impacts of the charter school movement on the portions of the education system that they regularly observe.

How does the PCSP encourage the development of charter schools?

The PCSP was enacted to support the start-up and early implementation needs of charter schools. The study team does not yet know how this support has played out at the charter school level, but there are some preliminary indicators from the first year of data collection. Over the last 5 years, the growth of the program and the size of PCSP grants to states have paralleled the growth in the charter school movement overall. Funding levels are determined by the documented needs described in a state?s proposal and the estimated number of eligible subgrantees that the grant will support over a 3-year period. In some years and in some states, grants have been adjusted through supplements when demand has outstripped the original grant amount and additional funding becomes available.

Year 1 Finding: Increasing numbers of new and developing charter schools are receiving support from federal funds through the Public Charter Schools Program (PCSP).

The evaluation also determined that most state charter school coordinators and local educators who have received PCSP grants directly from ED have found federal technical assistance to be accessible, useful, and timely. The PCSP Office plays a significant leadership role in school choice issues, both within ED and in the field.

The evaluation cannot yet provide a precise answer to the question of the proportion of charter schools receiving PCSP grants. Further follow-up with charter school directors and state coordinators is needed in this area. The evaluation team will present findings on this topic in later reports.

How do state PCSP grantees and charter school authorizers encourage the development of charter schools?

States have developed their own processes for awarding subgrants to charter schools. Some hold competitions, some divide the funds equally among eligible charter schools and planning groups, and others combine the two strategies. These differences in award strategy are the primary reason for differences among states in the proportion of charter schools that receive PCSP funding. States that divide the funding equally do not consider potential differences in start-up needs among charter schools.

Ninety-five percent or more of all PCSP grant funds devolve to charter schools or planning groups. On the basis of a sample of charter school authorizers of various types, almost no PCSP subgrant money is retained by these entities, although a local educational agency may be the fiscal agent for a subgrant.

Year 1 Finding: States use different definitions of "start-up," differences that affect eligibility for PCSP subgrants.

Eligibility for subgrants varies among states. Most states allow subgrants to groups that have obtained full or provisional charters even if the school has not opened. A few states award subgrants (generally small) to groups that have not yet obtained a charter. Some states have established priority factors that play a role in the subgrant proposal review process. However, very few states place priority on making PCSP awards to charter schools serving low-income communities. Priority is more likely to be given to schools serving special student populations.

According to state respondents, uses of the subgrant funds are largely unrestricted. This perception must be triangulated with the views of the subgrantees in a later data collection period. Other questions that require school-level data include these:

  • How are the needs supported by PCSP funding sustained after the funding expires?
  • How accessible, useful, and timely is state technical assistance to charter schools and school planners?

How do federally funded charter schools/school planners use their PCSP subgrants?

For this report, states were asked an open-ended question about their knowledge of the specific uses of PCSP subgrants. In general, respondents reported that subgrantees can and do use the funding for almost any purpose except those that are prohibited in federal law (e.g., purchase of real estate).

Much more about this question will be learned from an upcoming telephone survey of a representative sample of charter schools. That survey will be designed to answer the following questions:

  • What proportion of start-up costs are supported with the federal grant?
  • What kinds of planning and implementation activities do federal subgrants support?
  • What start-up barriers did federal funds allow charter schools/school planners to overcome that they otherwise could not have?
  • How important was access to federal grant money in the decision to obtain or pursue a charter?
  • What are the differences between charter schools that receive PCSP grants and those that do not?

What are the characteristics of charter schools and the students and families who are involved with them?

This report covers a period when the National Study of Charter Schools, funded by ED and conducted by RPP International, continued to bear the responsibility for documenting the explosive growth of the charter school movement. That study?s fourth-year report can be downloaded from the following Web site: www.ed.gov/pubs/charter4thyear/

In the future, the SRI evaluation will be continuing the documentation of the charter school movement through school-level surveys that cover the following:

  • School characteristics.
  • Student demographics, in comparison with traditional local public schools.
  • Staff characteristics.
  • Charter school type (new or conversion).
  • Admission policies and waiting lists.
  • Targeting and accommodation of special populations.
  • Professional development opportunities for staff.
  • Parent involvement.

What flexibility provisions are charter schools granted?

"Flexibility" has multiple meanings in the charter school context. With respect to state charter school legislation, there is variation among the states concerning the diversity or limitations on the kinds of agencies that are permitted to charter. States that allow only a single type of entity to award a charter (e.g., local educational agencies) may offer groups seeking a charter less flexibility than those states where several types of entity are allowed to award charters. In general, states are increasing the range of agencies permitted to charter.

Another feature of flexibility in the chartering environment is the presence or absence of caps on the number of charter schools allowed in state legislation. Again, the general trend is toward the removal of caps or expansion of the number of charter schools allowed under a cap.

Flexibility as freedom from regulation and bureaucracy is another meaning of the term in the charter school context. In general, charter schools are not exempt from state student assessment and basic auditing requirements. Further, half of the 38 states with charter school laws either require charter school applicants to negotiate waivers on a case-by-case basis or ban waivers altogether.

Year 1 Finding: In general, state charter school policies do not exempt charter schools from state student assessment or budgeting/auditing requirements.

The Year 1 data suggest that state coordinator and charter school authorizer respondents may have different perceptions of the degree of control and autonomy realized by charter schools. This difference of opinion begs for triangulation with data from charter schools themselves. It also will be important to add the charter school perspective on state and charter school authorizer policies that affect flexibility. Research questions on flexibility provisions that must be addressed through future data collection activities include the following:

  • To what extent are flexibility provisions that are granted by state and local laws realized in practice? Which flexibility provisions are most critical?
  • What factors are associated with successful and unsuccessful implementation of flexibility provisions?
  • What flexibility provisions do charter schools report to be the most critical to ensuring their success?

How do charter schools measure student performance, and are charter school students making progress on these and other measures?

Accountability is a key topic to track as the charter school movement matures and evolves. Like flexibility, accountability is a core feature of the contract between charter schools and their charter school authorizers. Data from states and charter school authorizers indicate that charter schools are accountable to multiple agencies. Accountability relationships often begin with the application review process, where charter school authorizers report that they require clarity on issues such as curriculum, finances, and assessment and accountability. Annual reporting, whether to states or charter school authorizers, focuses on student achievement, financial record keeping, and compliance with regulations.

Note that the Year 1 data reported in this document do not include any analyses of student performance in charter schools. The evaluation includes a student performance substudy, the results of which will be reported in later years.

In theory, as the result of a strict accountability process, charter schools that do not "perform" will close. The data from this evaluation show that mechanisms are in place for this purpose but are used in moderation. In states and charter school authorizers where charters have come up for renewal, few schools have failed to survive. In a number of states, charter school authorizers do not wait until renewal to begin corrective action if a charter school appears to be in trouble. The use of corrective actions is more prevalent in states that are more experienced with chartering, have more charter schools, and allow multiple agencies to charter.

Although data from states and charter school authorizers have advanced the evaluation team?s understanding of accountability, additional survey and interview data from charter schools are necessary to tell the rest of the story. In addition, the evaluation team is currently designing a substudy of student performance in charter schools. This study will involve reanalysis of state assessment data in a limited number of states, as well as site visits to obtain in-depth information at a small number of charter schools. The selection criteria for some sites (e.g., the existence of waiting lists) may allow the team to conduct comparisons between the performance of students who were admitted to charter schools and students who applied to be admitted but were not. This type of comparison would provide the opportunity to control for the choice element (i.e., the desire to attend a charter school).

Questions that will be addressed in subsequent reports include these:

Year 1 Evaluation Theme: States and charter school authorizers have many corrective actions at their disposal; most have been used in moderation.
  • What are the measures of student performance for which charter schools are accountable, and how are they assessed?
  • Are students in charter schools meeting the performance goals set forth in their schools? charters?
  • Do charter school students realize achievement gains comparable to their traditional public school counterparts?
  • Under what conditions do charter schools improve student achievement?
  • What comparisons do parents make between charter schools and other schools attended by their children? Do parents believe these institutions are accountable to them and responsive to their concerns?

Readers who would like more detail about future data collection activities for this evaluation are referred to Appendix B.

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