Overview of the Evaluation and the 2000-2001 Report
The Public Charter Schools Program (PCSP), established in 1994, represents the federal government’s commitment to help charter schools 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.
Researchers at SRI International are conducting the first national evaluation of the PCSP for the U.S. Department of Education (ED). In addition to gathering systematic information about the program at the local, state, and federal levels, the five-year study will continue to document the evolution of the charter school movement. Data collection and analysis for the SRI study are driven by a series of evaluation questions on the operations and impacts of the PCSP, the characteristics of charter schools, charter school flexibility, and charter school accountability. This introduction briefly describes the charter school movement and the PCSP. In addition, it provides details about the study’s data collection and analysis activities. Finally, it provides an overview of this report.
The Charter School Movement and the Public Charter Schools Program
Charter schools in the United States predate the PCSP and ED-sponsored research that helped determine the need for the planning, start-up, and early implementation funds authorized by the PCSP. Since the first charter school opened in 1992 in Minnesota, the number of these schools has increased steadily. As of summer 2001, almost 2,000 charter schools were in operation in 34 states and the District of Columbia.
As the movement has grown, it also has 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 & University of Minnesota, 1997). Depending on the requirements for state and local funding in a state’s charter school legislation, groups seeking to open charter schools often were 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 charter schools.
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 by the Office of School Improvement Programs in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. The program is intended to support the planning, development, and 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 three 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.