Family members walk hand-in-hand to the entrance of Imagine Andrews Public Charter School to begin the new school year. The school was established in 2011 with a goal of providing world class education for military and community students. (Staff Sgt. Torey Griffith / Air Force)
As more charter schools spring up on military installations, federal officials need to help guide them in balancing federal requirements with the goal of providing enrollment preference to military children, a new government report concludes.
Six public charter schools have opened on installations around the country since 2008, with more in the works. Two others were established in the early 2000s. Five are on Air Force bases, three on Navy bases.
They are publicly funded, independently operated schools chartered by state or local education officials. About 5,000 charter schools were operating nationwide in the 2009-10 school year.
The Government Accountability Office said in its report that the departments of Defense and Education need to clarify some problematic issues for the charter schools operating on military installations.
The schools operate with more autonomy than traditional public schools in return for tighter oversight and accountability regarding student academic achievement, the GAO said.
But because they receive public funding, they still must follow certain requirements. Therefore, not all schools are able to give enrollment preference to military students because that could violate state and federal laws on grant requirements.
While some states have changed or interpreted their laws to let schools give enrollment preference to military students, the Education Department has expressed concern that such preference could violate schools' federal grant requirements. GAO recommended that DoE officials clarify those grant requirements.
In response, education officials said they'll review requirements to determine how they can clarify admissions rules for charter schools operating on military installations.
"It's an interesting balancing act," said Eileen Huck, deputy director of government relations for the National Military Family Association. "If they don't allow some preference for military families, because of these families' mobility, schools could end up having a larger proportion of civilian families. That was certainly not the intent of anyone who started the schools."
GAO also recommended that DoD set uniform standards for operating charter schools on military bases.
All of the schools have some students from the civilian community, ranging from 10 percent to 58 percent. Nearly all are within the gates of installations, requiring civilians to complete a background check.
At Little Rock Air Force Base, Ark., some civilian parents didn't pass the required background checks, GAO said. Other charter schools have found it challenging to conduct some school activities because of the limited number of security passes for civilians. DoD's guidance should address reasonable access and security arrangements, GAO said.
A 2008 DoD report on military compensation recommended that military-connected parents be allowed to form charter schools on installations, primarily to give parents another option in areas where local public schools were performing poorly.
While Navy and Air Force parents have more aggressively pursued this option to date, a charter high school is also under development at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Other installations that have shown interest in starting charter schools are Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, Washington, D.C.; Joint Base Charleston, S.C.; MacDill Air Force Base, Fla.; and Barksdale Air Force Base, La.