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Decide Charter Schools' Federal Status, G.A.O. Urges

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Washington

With charter schools becoming more popular, federal officials must decide how to treat them under federal programs that were designed for traditional school districts, the General Accounting Office recommends in a new report.

If states are not given more federal guidance, the researchers warn, "uncertainty will persist that could impede charter schools' implementation."

The report was released at a Jan. 19 hearing on charter schools held by the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education.

Hoping to stimulate new approaches to education, 11 states have passed charter-school legislation allowing educators and others to create innovative schools exempt from most state education rules, and often from district-level supervision as well.

Grant Program Created

To encourage innovation, Congress created a grant program to help pay the start-up costs of charter schools as part of last year's reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Even though it was not yet authorized at the time appropriations bills were drafted, the program received $6 million in the current fiscal year, indicating a high level of interest on the part of lawmakers.

"The nation's education system is in need of new ideas, new approaches to learning, and new methods of teaching," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who chaired last month's hearing.

Logistical Problems

While the G.A.O. calls charter schools a promising model for innovative ideas, the report cautions that current federal laws do not take into account the autonomy some states have given these schools.

Arizona's 18 new charter schools, for example, will be treated by the state as independent school districts.

"It seems very clear they are eligible to seek federal funding the way a district would," said Linda Fuller, the Arizona state official who administers its charter-school program.

Under most federal K-12 programs, money is distributed by states at the school district level, rather than being targeted to individual schools.

Richard Wenning, the G.A.O. evaluator in charge of the report, noted that if charter schools are designated "local education agencies" like traditional districts, they can go directly to the state to get federal funding.

~In some cases, this could allow a charter school to receive more federal aid than it would as part of a larger district.

For example, a school with only a few disadvantaged children would probably not receive Title I compensatory-education money if it were part of a district that also included other schools with more poor children. At the same time, the same school might qualify for aid if it were the only school in a district.

However, some charter schools have only a little more freedom than traditional schools, the G.A.O. report points out. Therefore, it adds, treating them as school districts might not be appropriate.

Without further federal guidance, states could interpret federal rules differently, said Louann A. Bierlein, a Louisiana education consultant who specializes in charter schools, and some might even deny such schools federal aid.

"In many states, they say charter schools should get the money," she said. "Other states can interpret just as easily that they are not eligible."

Guidance Needed

The report also urges lawmakers to clarify the legal obligations of charter schools that are allowed to participate in federal programs on the same basis as districts.

In a written response to the General Accounting Office, Thomas W. Payzant, the Education Department's assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, said it would be hard to provide guidance covering the "wide variations" in charter-school laws.

The department encourages states to "develop legal arrangements" consistent with state education goals, and it will address legal and logistical issues on a "case-by-case basis," the letter adds.

"As we work with the states and others on this issue, we will continue to consider whether more general guidance would be helpful," Mr. Payzant wrote.

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