The U.S. Department of Education and other federal agencies work to ensure that 50 million students in K-12 public schools have access to a safe, quality education. However, a history of discriminatory practices has contributed to inequities in education, which are intertwined with disparities in wealth, income, and housing. Moreover, there are ongoing concerns about the safety and well-being of all students. To help address these issues, Education should strengthen its oversight of key programs, policies, and data collections.
- The COVID-19 pandemic disrupted learning for millions of students during the 2020-21 school year. Certain student populations were more likely to face significant obstacles to learning in a virtual environment—such as high-poverty students and students learning English. Some children also never attended class during the 2020-2021 school year.
- As the COVID-19 pandemic has led to increased use of remote education, K-12 schools across the nation have increasingly reported ransomware and other types of cyberattacks. Federal agencies offer products and services to help schools prevent and respond to cyberattacks. But Education's plan for addressing risks to schools was issued in 2010 and needs an update to deal with changing cybersecurity risks.
- School districts spend billions of dollars a year (primarily from local government sources) on building and renovating facilities at the nearly 100,000 K-12 public schools nationwide. A survey of school facilities brought up common issues and priorities, such as improving security, expanding technology, and addressing health hazards and about half of districts reported needing to update or replace multiple systems like heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) or plumbing. Additionally, accessing public school facilities was also reported as a challenge, with survey results showing that two-thirds of school districts had facilities with physical barriers that may limit access for students with disabilities.
- Even before the pandemic, virtual public school enrollment was growing—mostly in virtual charter schools. Compared to students in brick-and-mortar public schools, 2018-2019 data showed that a lower percentage of virtual school students took state achievement tests, and their scores were significantly lower. Also, Education officials said the virtual environment makes it harder to monitor attendance. Certain federal funds are allocated using attendance data, so there's a risk that virtual schools could get more or less funding than they should.
- Education requires public school districts to biennially report incidents of restraint (restricting a student’s movement) and seclusion (confining a student to a space alone). However, Education’s data quality checks may not catch misreporting or statistical outliers. For instance, 70% of districts reported 0 incidents of restraint and seclusion, but Education’s quality check only applies to fewer than 100 large districts. Education also doesn’t have a quality check for districts reporting relatively high incident rates—such as one that reported an average of 71 restraint incidents per student per year.
- A review of school shooting data found that half were committed by current or former students. Suburban and rural, wealthier, and low-minority schools had more school-targeted shootings; such shootings were the most fatal and most commonly committed by students. Urban, poor, and high-minority schools had more shootings overall and were more motivated by disputes; these shootings were often committed by non-students or unknown shooters.
- In the 2018-19 school year, about 1.3 million students were bullied for their race, religion, national origin, disability, gender, or sexual orientation. Education resolved complaints of hostile behaviors faster in recent years, but more complaints are being dismissed and fewer are being filed. Some civil rights experts said they have lost confidence in Education's ability to address civil rights violations in schools—citing Education's rescission of guidance that clarified civil rights protections.
- Students in relatively poor and small schools had less access to advanced high school courses that help prepare them for college during the 2015-16 school year (such as calculus, physics, and Advanced Placement courses). Additionally, high-poverty schools were less likely to offer the math and science courses that most public 4-year colleges expect students to take in high school.
- Nearly 7 million children between the ages of 3 and 21 received special education services during the 2015-16 school year under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. That's about 13% of the total number of students enrolled in public school. But the percent of the population served under the act varies across states. Differences in states' eligibility criteria may contribute to this variation. Challenges with identifying and evaluating children can also affect enrollment rates—for example, when children don't speak English, school districts don't always have staff that can evaluate them in their first language.
- An analysis of school year 2013-2014 civil rights data (the most recent available) found that Black students, boys, and students with disabilities received a disproportionate number of suspensions and expulsions in K-12 public schools. The Departments of Education and Justice documented several actions they’ve taken to identify and address school discipline issues, such as investigating cases alleging discrimination.