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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.

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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.


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 updated its non-regulatory guidance on Title I of the Act the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) in May 2023 and published new non-regulatory guidance on Title VIII of the Act in July 2023. Education reported that both contain information on the implementation of equitable services and the role of the ombuds. However, the updated Title I guidance contains no new information on how states should help ensure ombuds have the capacity to effectively carry out their responsibilities or on mitigating real or perceived threats to their impartiality. Further, the new Title VIII guidance contains the same information on impartiality as the Title I guidance that was in effect at the time of our review, providing no additional information on this topic or ensuring ombuds have the capacity to effectively carry out their responsibilities. Education also noted that it has provided technical assistance to states and ombuds on the new guidance through training webinars. However, the training does not focus on the issues of ombuds' capacity or on mitigating real or perceived threats to ombuds' impartiality. While the Title VIII guidance provides useful information on ESEA equitable services and additional training opportunities for states and ombuds are important and worthwhile, Education has not yet demonstrated that it has directly addressed the issues of ombuds' capacity and impartiality. We will close this recommendation when Education demonstrates it has provided additional guidance to states that directly addresses the issues of ombuds' capacity and mitigating real and perceived risks to ombuds' impartiality.
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)

Open – Partially Addressed
In 2023, Education conducted several trainings for state education agency officials and ombuds on its new Title VIII non-regulatory guidance, which have included information on equitable services, the role of the ombuds, and monitoring and enforcement of ESEA equitable services requirements. In addition, Education hosted an Ombudsman Update Live conference, which provided an opportunity for ombuds to share information and knowledge. These are important training opportunities that will assist ombuds in effectively carrying out their responsibilities. However, given that less than three-quarters of ombuds regularly conduct outreach to school districts and only about one-half conduct outreach to private schools, and that at least one private school leader in each of the five states in which we conducted site visits did not know who their ombuds was or how to contact them, we continue to believe it is important to have additional training to ombuds on notifying school districts and private schools about their role.
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)
In November 2023, Education reported that it is developing a notice or proposed rulemaking to update the Education Department General Administrative Regulations (EDGAR) and relevant federal regulations. Education anticipates that this effort will address issues related to what should be included in ESEA equitable services appeals. Education also reported that it plans to determine if templates, checklists, other guidance, or other general and targeted technical assistance would be helpful to support its efforts to reduce the time needed to gather the information needed to resolve equitable services disputes more quickly and meet the 90-day legal deadline for resolution. We will continue to monitor Education's efforts in this area.
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)
In November 2023, Education reported that it believes the updated Title I and new Title VIII equitable services guidance, its additional training and technical assistance, and the notice of proposed rulemaking it is developing will help support states and local education agencies implementation of equitable services requirements and reduce the number, and increasing the quality, of complaint appeals received by Education. While we acknowledge that Education has many competing demands, to close this recommendation Education should demonstrate that it has prioritized addressing equitable services complaints, for example, through internal guidance, work plans, memos, or other means.

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