LOS ANGELES – An audit of the U.S. Department of Education's division overseeing hundreds of millions of dollars in charter school funding has criticized the office for failing to properly monitor how states spend the money.
The report released in late September by the department's Office of the Inspector General also singled out state education departments in California, Florida and Arizona for lax monitoring of what charter schools do with the funds and whether their expenditures comply with federal regulations.
The education department's Office of Innovation and Improvement spent $940 million from 2008 to 2011 on charter schools, which are autonomously operated public schools. Most of the money is funneled through state education departments, although some is given directly to charter schools.
The funds are administered through competitive grants aimed at helping launch new charters and replicate successful charter models.
The inspector general said the innovation office has not given proper guidance to states on monitoring the use of the money and does not have policies to ensure that states corrected deficiencies when they were found.
Additionally, the audit, which was conducted by San Francisco-based education research company WestEd, found that the office did not review expenditures to ensure they met with federal disbursement requirements.
The office has agreed to beef up its procedures to track federal funds and ensure states are adequately overseeing charter schools, the report said.
WestEd also examined state charter oversight policies in California, Arizona and Florida, which collectively received $275 million in federal funds for charter schools from 2008 to 2011.
Among the findings:
In California, which has received nearly $182 million in federal charter grants from 2008 to 2011, auditors found "significant weaknesses" in charter oversight, such as school reviewers being unqualified to conduct on-site school visits. One reviewer felt "awkward" conducting site visits because of a lack of knowledge and experience, the report said.
California Department of Education spokeswoman Tina Jung said officials in Sacramento had just received the report and were reviewing it, but she acknowledged that the department had been aware of oversight deficiencies.
"Even before this review, we recognized the need to build our monitoring capacity, and that effort has already begun," she said.
In Florida, state officials had no records of which schools received federal grant money nor which schools received on-site monitoring and audits. Florida received $67.6 million.
Florida Education Department spokeswoman Cheryl Etters said the agency disagreed with the findings. She said in an email that the state has "an excellent grant management and records system to ensure that the state's charter schools comply with all aspects of the grant requirements," but the documentation was not in a format the inspector general would have liked.
"To enhance our current capabilities with regard to oversight of federal funds, Florida has created a new web-based system to more closely monitor charter school grant expenditures," Etters said.
In Arizona, which received about $26 million, reviewers lacked a monitoring checklist and thus collected inconsistent data when they visited schools.
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