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K-12 Education: Additional Guidance Could Improve the Equitable Services Process for School Districts and Private Schools

GAO-23-105469 Published: Apr 17, 2023. Publicly Released: May 17, 2023.
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Fast Facts

Students who attend nonprofit private schools may be eligible for the same services—such as tutoring and English language services—as public school students. These federally funded services are provided by school districts.

States must designate a specialist to address inquiries and concerns about such services.

We surveyed these specialists and found that many felt they didn't have enough guidance and training on their roles or on monitoring and enforcing federal requirements. We recommended that the Department of Education address these issues.

The sign outside of the Department of Education Headquarters Building with the building in the background

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What GAO Found

Since 2015, federal law has required states to designate an ombuds to monitor school districts' provision of services to eligible private school children and teachers. Most states implemented this requirement by assigning the role to someone already employed by the state educational agency, according to GAO's survey of all state ombuds. Selected stakeholders generally reported ombuds were helpful, but some raised concerns about ombuds' workload and real or perceived challenges to independence and impartiality. The Department of Education's guidance advises states to consider these issues but provides little information on how to help ensure ombuds have capacity to do their jobs or examples of ways to mitigate impartiality concerns. Further, about 40 percent of ombuds reported in GAO's survey that a lack of training, guidance, or other supports were among the greatest challenges they faced, with several noting they lacked knowledge of their role. Absent more robust guidance and training from Education, private schools and school districts may not fully benefit from ombuds as a resource.

Most Common Topics on Which Ombuds Reported More Guidance or Training Would Be Helpful

Most Common Topics on Which Ombuds Reported More Guidance or Training Would Be Helpful

Ombuds reported receiving a total of 38 formal equitable service complaints from private schools and private school associations since 2015 about issues including private school students and staff not receiving equitable services. Thirteen of these complaints were appealed to Education. By law, Education has 90 days to investigate and issue a decision in such appeals, but since 2015, it has never met that timeframe. GAO found that Education took a median of 258 days to issue decisions, with the longest taking over 500 days. Without timely decisions from Education, eligible private school students and teachers may not receive all equitable services to which they are entitled.

Many of the more than 30 selected private school leaders and school district officials GAO spoke with described challenges managing equitable services, such as that they are complex and time consuming. Most ombuds agreed, with 35 reporting that administrative burden is the most common reason that private school leaders may choose not to participate in equitable services. Further, all stakeholders cited challenges identifying and counting eligible children and working with multiple school districts or with private schools across school district boundaries. In addition, nearly all of the private school leaders GAO spoke with said private schools faced challenges receiving equitable services, such as the amount or quality of services.

Why GAO Did This Study

In 2019-20, over 4.6 million students attended private school. Many are eligible for equitable services—such as tutoring—under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). These federally funded services provided by school districts offer critical learning supports at private schools that opt to have their students receive them. ESEA requires states designate an ombuds to monitor and enforce equitable services requirements.

GAO was asked to review state implementation of the ombuds requirement and equitable services more broadly. This report examines (1) states' implementation of the equitable services ombuds and challenges in doing so, (2) how states and Education address equitable services disputes, and (3) challenges that selected private schools and school districts face related to equitable services.

GAO surveyed ombuds in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and five U.S. territories (52 of 56 responded). GAO also interviewed ombuds, state and school district officials, and private school leaders in five states, selected primarily because they have a large number of private schools. GAO also reviewed relevant federal laws, regulations, and Education documents, and interviewed Education officials.

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GAO is making four recommendations, including that Education provide guidance and training opportunities on mitigating workload and impartiality concerns; and meet required timeframes for resolving appeals. Education described steps to implement GAO's recommendations.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Education The Secretary of Education should develop additional guidance for states to help ensure ombuds have the capacity to manage their responsibilities and to mitigate real or perceived threats to ombuds' impartiality. For example, Education's guidance could provide examples of ombuds' activities, and advise states to also consider any other responsibilities assigned to the ombuds, and how these may affect the ombuds' capacity and real or perceived impartiality. (Recommendation 1)
Education noted that they had provided significant guidance to states regarding the requirements for equitable services under the ESEA and will continue to work with states to identify areas where additional guidance is needed. Education emphasized that SEAs are the primary agents to ensure the implementation of ESEA programs. Accordingly, they believe that collaboration between the ombuds and states are critical to the effectiveness of the role of the ombuds. We await further progress by the agency to implement this recommendation.
Department of Education The Secretary of Education should provide ombuds with more opportunities for training on topics such as
  • monitoring and enforcing requirements related to equitable services;
  • the role of the ombuds and ESEA programs; and
  • notifying private schools and school districts about the ombuds' existence and role, and the types of issues with which ombuds may be available to assist—for example, issues related to consultations and delays in receiving equitable services.

(Recommendation 2)

Education stated that it will continue to meet annually with state ombuds to provide support and training on various topics, including those identified in this recommendation. Education staff will continue to participate and present on equitable services at public and private school conferences. In their work with national organizations that provide technical assistance to members on federal education programs, Education said it would consider, as appropriate, how equitable services could be integrated into presentations and webinars. They will also continue to host the "Ombudsman Corner" web page; regularly update the directory; and provide information, resources and technical assistance to the ombuds through various listservs. Finally, they plan to host the Ombudsman Update Live conference in 2023 and consult with ombuds on topics they would like the agency to address in training to ensure that they are receiving relevant and timely technical assistance. We await further progress on these efforts.
Department of Education The Secretary of Education should develop and widely circulate guidance, model templates, checklists, or other materials for states and appellants regarding the material to include in ESEA equitable services appeals that will support Education with meeting the 90-day legal deadline for resolution. (Recommendation 3)
Education stated that the challenges they may face in meeting the 90-day deadline depend on the unique circumstances of each appeal and the completeness of the record. They will consider developing additional information on the appeals process that might mitigate some of the challenges. We await further progress on these efforts.
Department of Education The Secretary of Education should prioritize investigations and resolutions of appeals related to equitable services to meet the 90-day legal deadline for resolution. (Recommendation 4)
Education stated that the complicated nature and volume of appeals affect the agency's ability to meet the 90-day deadline. Education also noted that the majority of appeals it has received since the passage of ESSA in 2015 occurred during 2020 or 2021. We recognize the challenges inherent in addressing these appeals, but note that since 2015, Education has not once met the 90-day deadline for resolving an appeal. Given this, we believe Education should prioritize investigations and resolution of equitable services appeals and will await any progress by the agency.

Full Report

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