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Evaluation of the Public Charter Schools Program:
Year One Evaluation Report
Executive Summary

The Public Charter Schools Program (PCSP), established in 1994, represents the federal government's commitment to help charter schools with cover meet planning, start-up, and early implementation costs. By helping charter schools overcome financial barriers, the PCSP is also designed to increase the number of charter schools nationwide. As of October 1999, 1,692 charter schools were in operation in 30 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.

Researchers at SRI International are conducting the first national evaluation of the PCSP. In addition to gathering systematic information about the program at the local, state, and federal levels, the 52-month study will continue to document the evolution of the charter school movement (a process begun under another study funded by the U.S. Department of Education and conducted by RPP International). Data collection and analysis for the SRI study are driven by a series of research questions on the operations and impacts of the PCSP, the characteristics of charter schools, charter school flexibility, and charter school accountability.

The Public Charter Schools Program and the Charter School Movement

Federal interest in supporting the development of the charter school movement began in 1993, when President Clinton first proposed the Public Charter Schools Program and several Senators and Representatives proposed the Public Schools Redefinition Act. No action was taken, however, until the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in 1994. At that time, the PCSP was enacted as Title X, Part C, of ESEA, with an initial appropriation of $6 million in FY 1995. The PCSP is a discretionary grant program, administered in the Office of School Improvement Programs in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. The PCSP is intended to support the planning, development, and/or initial implementation of charter schools, providing relatively unencumbered seed funding for states with charter school laws to distribute to charter school groups during the first 3 years of a charter school's existence. The statute also makes provision for individual charter schools to apply directly to the Secretary of Education for a grant if their states choose not to participate or have been denied a grant.

Congress reauthorized the PCSP in 1998 by passing the Charter School Expansion Act of 1998 (P.L. 105-378). Eligibility for subgrants was expanded to include mature charter schools, which could apply for funds to disseminate promising school practices. The appropriation for FY 2000 was $145 million.

Even though charter schools in the United States predate the PCSP, the movement is still less than 10 years old. Since the first charter school opened in 1992 in Minnesota, the number of these schools has swelled to close to 2,000increased steadily, and President Clinton has repeatedly challenged educators to increase the number to 3,000 by 2002. As the movement has grown, it has also struggled. Stories began to emerge early about the difficulties that charter schools - particularly those that were being created from scratch - faced in their first months and years (RPP International and the University of Minnesota, 1997). Depending on the specifications about state and local funding streams in a state's charter school legislation, groups seeking to open charter schools were often obliged to capitalize the planning and early development of their schools out of their own pockets or by incurring debt. Finding, renting or buying, and renovating space were particular barriers, according to early surveys of the charter school field.

SRI International's Evaluation of the PCSP

The PCSP legislation also authorized an evaluation of the program, along with other national activities (ESEA Sections 10301[b] and 10305[a]). Researchers at SRI International began this first evaluation of the PCSP in October 1998. The 52-month study has two purposes: (1) evaluation of the rapidly growing Public Charter Schools Program and (2) continued documentation of the evolution of the charter school movement begun under the National Study of Charter Schools, conducted by RPP International. The findings reported in this document are from the first year of the SRI evaluation, which included telephone surveys of (1) state charter school coordinators (N=38), (2) representatives of a purposive sample of agencies that are authorized to award charters to charter schools under state charter school laws (charter school authorizers) (n=48), and (3) directors of a subset of charter schools that received PCSP grants directly from the U.S. Department of Education (ED) (n=14). Year 1 data collection also included the extraction of information from federal files maintained on PCSP grantees, analysis of state charter laws, interviews with federal staff, and focus groups with charter school planners and operators and with charter school authorizers.

Two additional reports are planned under this contract. They will include analyses of charter school-level data from multiple sources: (1) the National Study of Charter Schools conducted by RPP International; (2) the National Center for Education Statistics' Schools and Staffing Survey (SASS), which included a charter school supplement in its 1999-2000 data collection effort; and (3) the SRI survey of charter schools in 2000-2001 and 2001-2002. [Maybe the data sources should be ordered chronologically??] In addition, the SRI evaluation team will conduct a substudy of student performance in charter schools compared with student performance in regular public schools in a limited number of states where such comparisons can be made under rigorous design considerations.

Broad Research Questions

The dual purposes of this evaluation are evident in the broad research question clusters that guide the data collection, analysis, and reporting requirements. Some questions are concerned specifically with the Public Charter Schools Program, and others are about the evolution of the charter school movement in a more general sense.

  • How does the PCSP encourage the development of charter schools?
  • How do state PCSP grantees and charter school authorizers encourage the development of charter schools?
  • How do federally funded charter schools/school planners use their PCSP subgrants?
  • What are the characteristics of charter schools and the students and families who are involved with them?
  • What flexibility provisions are charter schools granted?
  • How do charter schools measure student performance, and are charter school students making progress on these and other measures?

Additional details about the research questions, study design, data collection, and data analysis are presented in Chapter 1 of the report.

The Growth of the Charter Movement

The number of charter schools is increasing steadily (see Exhibit 1). The National Study of Charter Schools (Nelson et al., 2000) reports several interesting statistics about this growth, which the SRI data supplement in this report. SRI will continue documenting this growth in later reports. Please note that charter schools are not yet in operation in all states that have enacted charter school laws.

Exhibit 1

Beginning of School Year

Number of States with Charter School Laws

Number of States with Charter Schools

Number of Charter Schools







Nelson et al. (2000). (Note: Data include Washington, D.C., starting in 1996-1997, but not Puerto Rico, which authorized charter schools in 1993.)





























SRI. (Includes D.C. and Puerto Rico.)

Organization of the Report

The Year 1 data in this report paint a comprehensive picture of a number of issues: the development of the Public Charter Schools Program, state and charter school authorizer perspectives on charter school flexibility and accountability, and the charter school activities of states and a sample of charter school authorizers. This picture, however, is also a "snapshot" of a rapidly evolving movement during a narrow time interval (summer and fall 1999).

The report is organized according to the evaluation themes and findings from the first year of data collection and analysis. The overarching themes and specific findings are as follows:

Evaluation Theme 1: Like the charter school movement itself, the Public Charter Schools Program has grown and matured since its implementation in 1994.

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

Evaluation Theme 2: Public Charter Schools Program funds flow as Congress and the U.S. Department of Education intended as grants to states and then directly to charter schools as subgrants. Overall, 95 percent or more of PCSP funds are spent at the charter school level.

Finding: As allowed in the legislation, states retain 5 percent or less of their PCSP grants for administrative purposes.

Finding: As allowed in the legislation, states have developed their own procedures for awarding subgrants.

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

Finding: The use of PCSP subgrant funds is largely unrestricted.

Evaluation Theme 3: In addition to providing financial support, the Public Charter Schools Program has provided national leadership in the charter school movement through policy-setting, research, networking, and technical assistance to the field.

Finding: The PCSP takes a leadership role within the Department of Education in helping shape the national charter school agenda.

Finding: PCSP staff have taken an active approach to connecting charter school operators, sponsors, and support groups with each other and with other resources.

Finding: The PCSP is responsive to technical assistance requests from states and other PCSP grantees.

Evaluation Theme 4: States, in general, are working toward increasing the avenues available to charter applicants, either by expanding the types of agencies that can charter or by loosening limits on the numbers of charter schools permitted.

Finding: State laws allow a diverse range of agencies to award charters to schools.

Finding: Although caps on the number of charter schools have been an obstacle to charter school growth in some states, the overall trend is to loosen or expand these limits over time.

Evaluation Theme 5: Reports from states and charter school authorizers suggest that charter schools have certain freedoms that other public schools do not, but that they are also subject to many of the same regulations and requirements. Perceptions of these freedoms differ between state and charter school authorizer respondents, and among charter school authorizers.

Finding: Half of the 38 states with charter school laws automatically grant waivers from many state laws, rules, and regulations; the other half either require charter school applicants to negotiate waivers on a case-by-case basis or ban waivers altogether.

Finding: In general, state charter school policies do not exempt charter schools from state student assessment or budgeting/auditing requirements. Charter school authorizers, on the other hand, reported that charter schools have considerable autonomy over key aspects of their programs.

Finding: In general, charter school authorizers that are not local educational agencies (e.g., agencies like state boards of education, institutions of higher education, and special chartering boards) allow charter schools greater flexibility and autonomy.

Evaluation Theme 6: Both States and charter school authorizers are establishing processes to hold charter schools accountable, typically involving many levels of the education system, [this phrase seems vague] and often focusing on student achievement.

Finding: In general, states reported that charter schools are held to the same student outcome measures as other public schools, student particularly with respect to state testing requirements. outcome measures as other public schools, as measured by state testing particularly with respect to state testing requirements. . Similarly, charter school authorizers reported that nearly all charter schools have measurable goals in the area of student achievement.

Finding: In the majority of states with charter school legislation, charter schools are accountable to multiple agencies.

Finding: The most prominent roles and responsibilities of charter school authorizers, as reported by states, include reviewing, negotiating, and monitoring the terms of the charter agreement and monitoring student performance.

Finding: During the charter-granting process, charter school authorizers reported focusing on curriculum, finances, and assessment and accountability. Once charter schools are up and running, charter school authorizers focus on monitoring student achievement, financial record keeping, and compliance with federal or state regulations.

Finding: Charter school authorizers that are not local educational agencies (particularly those that are states) and those that have chartered large numbers of schools are more likely to have well-developed accountability policies, processes, and procedures than local charter school authorizers.

Evaluation Theme 7: States and charter school authorizers have many corrective actions at their disposal; most have been used in moderation.

Finding: Though not a frequent occurrence, in about half of the states the accountability process has resulted in some type of sanction against one or more charter schools. Generally, corrective actions are related to fiscal and management issues.

Finding: Charter school authorizers echoed state reports concerning the variety, frequency, and causes of corrective actions involving charter schools.

Finding: Corrective actions, when they did take place, were more common in states with older charter school legislation, larger populations of charter schools, and multiple chartering entities.

As this list of themes and findings indicates, the key issues explored in the Year 1 report are the Public Charter Schools Program, charter school flexibility, and charter school accountability, mostly from the perspective of respondents to the state coordinator and charter school authorizer surveys. Information from federal interviews and the focus groups is incorporated anecdotally.

The report concludes with a chapter on the study findings as of Year 1 and on the impact of charter schools from the perspective of Year 1 survey respondents. The conclusion also presents information on the evaluation team's plans for future rounds of data collection, analysis, and reporting.

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