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GAO Examines Challenges Facing Charters on Military Bases

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The Government Accountability Office has put out a new report examining the challenges facing charter schools operating on military bases in the U.S., such as how they administer lottery systems to determine which students are admitted.

The report looked at eight charter schools currently in operation and one that was being developed at the time of the review. Many of the schools (six out of the eight) opened after a 2008 report published by the U.S. Department of Defense that recommended parents be given the right to form charter schools on military bases.

The Government Accountability Office is an independent agency that works for Congress to investigate how the federal government spends taxpayer dollars.

Of the 1.2 million school-age children in military families, the vast majority of them (94 percent) are educated off-base in traditional public schools or private schools. There are 160 traditional public schools located on military bases throughout the United States. The Department of Defense also runs a number of schools, mostly overseas, that educate military-connected students on bases. Sixty-four of those schools operate domestically, with an enrollment of about 28,000 students. The Department of Defense-operated schools are federally funded and are only open to active-duty military and Department of Defense civilians who reside on military bases.

While charter schools on military bases face some of the same challenges that civilian charter schools encounter, such as difficulty finding facilities or start-up funds, some of the challenges they face are unique to the military-connected population they serve. Although the eight charter schools on military bases differ in terms of curriculum and pedagogical focus (one infuses art into every subject area, for instance, and another emphasizes STEM subjects) most of them also strive to serve the distinct needs of military-connected families and their highly mobile student population by providing counseling, and arranging welcome clubs and buddy programs to ease the transitions associated with arriving at a new school.

Most of the charter schools that open on military bases would like to serve a majority of military-connected students, the report found. However, open enrollment laws in many states require charter schools to enroll students from anywhere in the state. And state laws also requires charters to establish a lottery system or other random selection process to select students when the school receives more applicants than open spots, making it difficult to provide preferential enrollment to military-connected students.

Three of the charter schools the report looked at had specific enrollment mechanisms that favor students from military families. The Imagine Andrews Public Charter School on Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, for instance, holds separate lotteries for children whose parents are assigned to and reside on base to fill 65 percent of the school's enrollment and a separate lottery for off-base children (military or civilian) to make up 35 percent of the enrollment of the school. Originally, the school wanted to serve only military-connected children, but Maryland law required the charter be open to all students. In 2010, lawmakers in Maryland passed an exception to the open-enrollment rule for charter schools operating on military bases, allowing such schools to bypass the requirement as long as at least 35 percent of the student body was made up of students from outside the military base.

Most of the charter schools examined in the report educate a majority of students connected to the miliary, although the portion ranges from 42 percent to 90 percent, depending on the school. More guidance around what kind of enrollment practices are acceptable in these unique charter schools is needed from both the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Defense to help organizations and families understand how charter schools on military bases can operate, the report concluded.

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