Indian Education: Actions Needed to Ensure Students with Disabilities Receive Special Education Services
Are Native American students with disabilities getting the services they need?
Some in Bureau of Indian Education schools may not be.
Each of these students has an individualized education plan outlining the type, frequency, and duration of services the school is legally required to provide—e.g., physical therapy. Schools must log when and for how long the services in each plan are provided to students.
But schools didn’t provide or didn’t log almost 40% of students’ planned service time. The Bureau could do more to oversee and support schools in providing services.
Our recommendations are to help the Bureau better meet these students’ needs.
Estimated Percentage of Special Education Services
Pie chart showing 62% service time documented as received, 20% documented as not received, 18% documentation not provided
What GAO Found
Schools funded by the Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) are required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to provide services for eligible students with disabilities, such as learning disabilities or health impairments. Services for these students are listed in individualized education programs (IEP). GAO found that BIE schools did not provide or did not account for 38 percent of special education and related service time for students with disabilities, according to analysis of school documentation for a 4-month review period (see fig.). This included one school that did not provide any services to three students. While BIE has plans to improve documentation of such services, it has not established whether and when missed services should be made up, which has led to inconsistent practices among schools. Establishing consistent requirements for making up missed services could help students receive the special education and related services they need to make academic progress.
Percentage of Special Education and Related Service Time Provided by Bureau of Indian Education Schools to Eligible Students (between October 2017 and February 2018)
Note: Estimates included in this figure have a margin of error at the 95 percent confidence level of plus or minus 12 percentage points or fewer.
BIE's limited monitoring and technical assistance have hindered its oversight and support for special education at schools. For example:
A division of BIE responsible for overseeing about half of all BIE schools decided to verify the provision of special education services at only one-third of its schools per year, although the Department of the Interior (Interior) requires BIE to annually verify the provision of services at all schools.
BIE provided required monitoring reports late and did not provide required technical assistance plans to 14 schools that BIE determined were at high risk of not complying with IDEA and other federal education programs in school year 2018-2019.
BIE officials said that the field office staff responsible for working with schools on special education often do not have the requisite expertise, which has hampered their oversight and support to schools.
Without verifying special education services at every school annually, following high-risk monitoring and technical assistance requirements, and providing training to its staff, BIE cannot ensure that the schools it funds are meeting their responsibilities under IDEA. Strengthening such oversight and support activities can help BIE as it works to address the unique needs of students with disabilities to help prepare them for future education, employment, and independent living.
Why GAO Did This Study
BIE funds 185 elementary and secondary schools that serve more than 6,000 Native American students with special needs. The Department of Education has raised concerns about BIE's implementation of IDEA in recent years, including its long-standing noncompliance with IDEA requirements. GAO was asked to examine the provision of special education and related services to eligible BIE students.
This report examines the extent to which (1) BIE students with disabilities are provided the special education and related services required by their IEPs, and (2) BIE oversees and supports the provision of special education at its schools. GAO analyzed data on special education and related services for a generalizable sample of 138 BIE students with IEPs at 30 schools over a 4-month period in school year 2017-2018 (the most recent complete school year at the time of our analysis); compared BIE special education practices with its policies and Interior and IDEA requirements; visited schools in two states selected for their large numbers of BIE schools; and interviewed school and agency officials.
GAO is making seven recommendations, including that BIE establish consistent requirements for schools on making up missed services, annually verify special education services at all schools, comply with high-risk monitoring and technical assistance requirements, and ensure that BIE staff receive needed training. Interior agreed with the recommendations.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Bureau of Indian Education||
Priority Rec.The Director of BIE should establish consistent requirements for schools on making up missed special education and related services and monitor schools to ensure that they follow these requirements. (Recommendation 1)
BIE agreed with this recommendation. BIE acknowledged that it must refine the guidance provided by its special education subject matter experts to ensure that guidance on missed special education related services is consistent. In January 2022, BIE reported it was developing policy and guidance for schools that would include requirements on making up missed special education and related services. As of January 2023, BIE had drafted a special education policy and handbook that includes consistent requirements for schools on making up missed special education and related services. Agency officials said they planned to finalize and issue the policy and handbook after consulting with Tribes and then would take steps to monitor schools to ensure they follow the requirements for making up missed services. We will continue to track the agency's efforts to implement the recommendation.
|Bureau of Indian Education||The Director of BIE should work with knowledgeable stakeholders in Indian education to establish a community of practice or other formal mechanism to identify and disseminate promising practices for schools—especially those in remote locations—on recruiting, hiring, and retaining special education teachers and contracting with providers. The Director of BIE could consider conferring with BIE's special education advisory committee, OSEP, and relevant tribal and state education officials in addressing this recommendation. (Recommendation 2)||
BIE agreed with this recommendation. The agency plans to work collaboratively with all of its special education stakeholders to build on its internal human capital capabilities, Strategic Workforce Plan and other human capital improvements. In May 2021, BIE reported that it planned to implement the recommendation by the end of 2022 but, as of July 2022, provided no new information on how it would address the recommendation. We will continue to monitor the agency's efforts to implement the recommendation.
|Bureau of Indian Education||The Director of BIE should rescind the policy of its division overseeing tribally controlled schools that does not meet Interior's requirement to annually review all schools' documentation to verify the provision of services for every special education student, and ensure that all divisions comply with this requirement. (Recommendation 3)||
BIE agreed with this recommendation. In July 2021, the BIE Director rescinded the Tribally-Controlled School Division's 3-year review policy and directed all divisions to conduct annual reviews of schools' documentation to verify the provision of services for every special education student. As of October 2022, BIE developed and implemented a monitoring process to ensure its three school divisions verified the provision of services for every special education student as required. BIE's process included quarterly tracking by division as well as obtaining a written letter from each school division head certifying that the division had completed its 2022 school year review of all schools' documentation to verify the provision of special education and related services for every eligible student at each school for which the division is responsible.
|Bureau of Indian Education||The Director of BIE should update the agency's workforce plan to include a strategy and timeframe for filling vacant staff positions responsible for overseeing and supporting schools' special education programs. (Recommendation 4)||
BIE agreed with this recommendation and plans to update and expand its Strategic Workforce plan to include new function areas. They expect to update it in the coming months to include special education and Johnson O'Malley functions. In May 2021, BIE reported that it planned to implement the recommendation by September 30, 2023 but, as of July 2022, provided no new information on how it would address the recommendation. We will continue to monitor the agency's efforts to implement the recommendation.
|Bureau of Indian Education||The Director of BIE should fully implement the agency's high-risk monitoring policy for IDEA and other federal education programs, including requirements for agency-wide coordination, and ensure that schools selected for such monitoring receive reports and technical assistance plans within 30 days of agency on-site visits, as required by BIE policy. (Recommendation 5)||
BIE agreed with this recommendation. Based on lessons learned in its first two years of implementation, the agency plans to make targeted refinements to the policy and process of high-risk monitoring. Regarding the timeliness of report submission and technical assistance delivery, the agency began a targeted reform designed to address this structural weakness, namely, the need to centralize the administrative functions of its oversight activities. The newly established Performance Office will assume the administrative and management oversight of the high-risk fiscal monitoring policy and handbook, including the timely delivery of monitoring reports and technical assistance plans. In May 2021, BIE reported that it planned to implement the recommendation by September 30, 2023 but, as of July 2022, provided no new information on how it would address the recommendation. We will continue to monitor the agency's efforts to implement the recommendation.
|Bureau of Indian Education||The Director of BIE should establish special education training requirements for staff in the agency's Education Resource Centers who are responsible for supporting and overseeing schools' special education programs, and ensure that staff complete those training requirements. (Recommendation 6)||
BIE agreed with this recommendation. The agency will ensure that special education training and professional development requirements are identified as part of its planned Strategic Workforce Plan update and expansion. In May 2021, BIE reported that it planned to implement the recommendation by September 30, 2023 but as of July 2022, provided no new information on how it would address the recommendation. We will continue to monitor the agency's efforts to implement the recommendation.
|Bureau of Indian Education||The Director of BIE should take steps to ensure that all of the agency's Education Resource Centers conduct outreach with schools to inform them of their new roles in overseeing and supporting schools' special education programs under BIE's reorganization. (Recommendation 7)||
BIE agreed with this recommendation. As BIE makes targeted reforms to improve the delivery of special education services, it will ensure that the roles and responsibilities of Education Resource Centers (ERC) are clearly identified and communicated to responsible BIE personnel. Specifically, as it updates and expands the Strategic Workforce Plan, it will clearly and directly define the role of ERC personnel with respect to special education services. In addition, as the new Performance Office establishes timely and routine technical assistance plans, the agency will operationalize the day-to-day engagement and outreach between ERC and school level personnel regarding special education related technical assistance. In May 2021, BIE reported that it planned to implement the recommendation by the end of 2022 but, as of July 2022, provided no new information on how it would address the recommendation. We will continue to monitor the agency's efforts to implement the recommendation.