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Private School Choice: Federal Actions Needed to Ensure Parents Are Notified About Changes in Rights for Students with Disabilities

GAO-18-94 Published: Nov 16, 2017. Publicly Released: Nov 30, 2017.
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Highlights

What GAO Found

States include different academic, administrative, and financial accountability mechanisms in their voucher and education savings account (ESA) programs—programs that use public funds for private school educational expenses (see figure). Of the 27 programs operating in January 2017, most had academic and administrative accountability mechanisms for participating schools, such as academic testing requirements (18 of 27) or health and safety requirements (25 of 27). In addition, 15 of 27 programs required schools to demonstrate financial soundness and 8 of 27 programs required annual financial audits.

Key Academic, Administrative, and Financial Accountability Mechanisms in Private School Choice Programs

Key Academic, Administrative, and Financial Accountability Mechanisms in Private School Choice Programs

Almost all of the 27 private school choice program websites provide a directory of participating schools and some provide guidance on selecting schools. However, GAO estimates that no more than half of all schools participating in any type of voucher program mention students with disabilities anywhere on their websites, according to GAO's review of a nationally generalizable sample of websites of private schools in voucher programs. Further, GAO estimates that no more than 53 percent of private schools in voucher programs designed for students with disabilities provide disability-related information on their websites.

GAO found private school choice programs inconsistently provide information on changes in rights and protections under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) when parents move a child with a disability from public to private school. In 2001, the U.S. Department of Education (Education) strongly encouraged states and school districts to notify parents of these changes, but according to Education, IDEA does not provide it with statutory authority to require this notification. According to GAO's review of information provided by private school choice programs, and as confirmed by program officials, in school year 2016-17, 83 percent of students enrolled in a program designed specifically for students with disabilities were in a program that provided either no information about changes in IDEA rights or provided information that Education confirmed contained inaccuracies about these changes. Officials from national stakeholder groups, private choice programs, and Education told GAO that some parents do not understand that certain key IDEA rights and protections—such as discipline procedures and least restrictive environment requirements—change when parents move their child from public to private school. Ensuring that quality information is communicated consistently and accurately to parents can help address potential misunderstanding about changes in federal special education rights.

Why GAO Did This Study

Growth of voucher and ESA programs has drawn attention to the ways states ensure accountability and transparency to the public and prospective parents. With over half of voucher and ESA programs specifically designed for students with disabilities, there is interest in the information parents receive about special education services and rights when enrolling in a choice program. GAO was asked to examine these topics in more depth.

This report examines (1) academic, administrative, and financial accountability mechanisms in private choice programs; (2) information available to the public and families on private choice programs and participating schools; and (3) how parents of students with disabilities are informed about changes in rights when enrolling in private choice programs. GAO analyzed information from all voucher and ESA programs operating in January 2017 and interviewed officials from Education, national groups, and six of the largest private choice programs. GAO reviewed websites of a nationally representative sample of private voucher schools, and worked with private choice groups and national organizations to contact families that recently interacted with a choice program. GAO interviewed all 17 families that responded.

Recommendations

Congress should consider requiring states to notify parents/guardians about changes in federal special education rights when a parent moves a child from public to private school. In addition, GAO recommends Education review and correct inaccurate IDEA-related information provided by states. Education generally agreed with our recommendation.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

Matter Status Comments
Congress should consider requiring that states notify parents/guardians of changes in students' federal special education rights when a student with a disability is moved from public to private school by their parent.
Open
As of June 2023, Congress has not considered this matter.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services
Priority Rec.
The Assistant Secretary for Special Education and Rehabilitative Services should review information provided by states related to changes in federal special education rights when a parent places a student with a disability in a private school and work with states to correct inaccurate information.
Closed – Implemented
In February 2022, Education issued guidance entitled, "Questions and Answers on Serving Children With Disabilities Placed by Their Parents in Private Schools." The guidance includes a new Section K with proactive information to states, districts, parents, and other stakeholders related to IDEA services for parentally-placed private school students enrolled in state voucher and scholarship programs. Related to the findings in our report, the guidance specifically states, "A State may not condition the receipt of a school choice voucher or scholarship on the parent's revocation of consent to FAPE, including special education and related services...A parent's revocation of consent for their child's continued receipt of FAPE, including special education and related services, if offered by an LEA as equitable services, does not relieve a State and its LEAs of their responsibilities to provide equitable services under IDEA to parentally-placed private school children with disabilities who are eligible to receive such services." Before this guidance was issued, Education had begun working with states they identified as providing incorrect or inaccurate information to families regarding the rights of parentally-placed private school students with disabilities when enrolling in private school choice programs. We found that at least two of the states identified by Education as having incorrect or inaccurate information in 2018 have since revised their information to families to be more consistent with the guidance outlined in Education's 2022 Q&A document. We encourage Education to continue working with states to ensure families are provided with accurate information on the rights of their students with disabilities.

Full Report

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Topics

School choiceChildren with disabilitiesStudents with disabilitiesAid for the disabledEducation program evaluationParental notificationPrivate schoolsScholarship programsSpecial educationStudentsEducational standardsSchool vouchersPublic schoolsDisabilities