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.
- The U.S. is experiencing a shortage of teachers – a problem that worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic amid reports of teachers leaving the profession, fewer new teachers entering, and schools struggling to hire teachers. While Education has introduced a strategy to address these issues, progress can be made to ensure its efforts are working.
- While nearly all public school districts require students to adhere to dress codes, concerns about equity in school dress codes have included the detrimental effects of removing students from the classroom for dress code violations. A review of a nationally representative sample of public school district dress codes revealed school dress codes more frequently restrict items typically worn by girls. Additionally, rules about hair and head coverings can disproportionately affect Black students and those of certain religions and cultures.
- 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. Additionally, about half of districts reported needing to update or replace multiple systems like heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) or plumbing. 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.