Ed. Department Has Work to Do, Audit Finds

The U.S. Department of Education should increase its attention on preventing the underreporting of restraint and seclusion problems involving students, ensuring parents understand special education rights, and helping states provide more transparency on charter school management organizations, the Government Accountability Office says.

The GAO, an auditing arm of Congress, regularly releases recommended priorities for government agencies. In a June 28 letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, which was made available to the public on July 5, GAO officials outlined five total education priorities, three of which focused on “ensuring the well-being and education of the nation’s school-age children.”

Restraint and seclusion of students

The first recommendation would have the Education Department’s office for civil rights identify the factors that lead to misreporting and underreporting of students who are restrained or secluded in school. The Education Department agreed with the recommendation and has already committed to evaluating and analyzing trend data from past civil rights data collections to identify the causes of underreporting and misreporting, according to the report.

However, the GAO believes the department should go farther by working directly with school districts. During the 2017-18 school year, the most recent year of data available, 101,990 U.S. students were subjected to restraint or seclusion, according to the Education Department’s office for civil rights.

“Until [the Education Department] more fully understands why so many school districts are underreporting and misreporting federal restraint and seclusion data, it will likely not be able to help districts improve their reporting, thereby improving the accuracy and utility of the data,” the report said.

Helping parents know their special education rights

The GAO report also recommended that the department work to combat misinformation surrounding special education rights. Specifically, the department should ensure that parents understand changes in federal special education law when they place their students with disabilities in private schools.

In February, the department released updated guidance related to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act rules for students in private schools. Some state agencies have not updated information to reflect the changes, the report said. The department should work with state education agencies to correct inaccurate information on Individuals with Disabilities Education Act services in light of the new guidance. The department “generally agreed” with the recommendation, according to the report.

Charter-management organizations

The GAO’s final recommendation targets states’ underreporting of information on management organizations that contract with charter schools, especially virtual charter schools. In order to receive federal funding, charter schools have to divulge if they contract with for-profit organizations. But only 16 states have laws requiring charter schools to prove they aren’t run by a for-profit company, according to a January 2020 study from the Education Commission of the States, an education policy research organization.

The Education Department should take steps to help states report accurate data by gathering information on how states determine if charter schools have contracts with management organizations, the recommendation said. The department should also modify the instructions for data submissions on charter school contracts and clarify the definition of a management organization to include the for-profit status of the organizations, the report said.

Without improving data quality, the department won’t be able to mitigate “elevated financial and programmatic risks” that arise with charter schools, the report said.

The department agreed with the recommendation, according to the report. Recent changes to its Charter School Program funding rules, for example, are aimed at combating mismanagement of charter school funds and preventing charter school closures by requiring incoming charter schools to disclose any contracts with for-profit education management organizations. The program provides federal grants to charter schools in their first three years of operation.

The GAO report also gave an update on past Education Department priorities. Since June 2021, for example, the department took steps to regularly collect and report information on state and school district spending of COVID-19 relief funds. It also fulfilled two recommendations to improve restraint and seclusion data by developing business rules that target school districts that report both very low and very high incidents of restraint and seclusion, according to GAO.

As of May 2022, the department had 60 unfulfilled GAO recommendations, the report said. Those recommendations include an updated review of school cybersecurity threats and efforts to improve low-performing teacher preparation programs.