May 31, 2023

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) has released a report titled “Additional Guidance Could Improve the Equitable Services Process for School Districts and Private Schools.” The GAO study was requested by U.S. Representative Virginia Foxx, Chairwoman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. Among the more interesting findings:

  • Under federal law, the U.S. Department of Education (referred to as “Education” in the report) has 90 days to investigate and decide upon equitable services complaints that have been appealed to it, yet that timeframe has never been met, and instead USDE has averaged 258 days to issue decisions. The report says “Education has not made it a priority to process appeals timely nor clarify its expectations for materials to include and exclude from complaints to ease this process.”
  • Regarding the low number of formal complaints (only 38 since 2015) and appeals to Education (13), the report says, “Representatives from two private school associations told us private schools might lack the resources (e.g., time or legal counsel) to pursue a complaint. This may be especially true for schools that are not part of an association. One ombuds said because ombuds tend to provide more technical assistance to school districts than private schools, private school leaders might feel excluded from the decision-making process. As a result, they may feel filing a complaint would not be worthwhile, even though they never provided their input on the matter in question. Lastly, a private school leader and an ombuds said private schools might not file a formal complaint for fear of damaging their relationship with the school district.”
  • Three quarters of ombuds surveyed said they spend 50% or less of their time on their ombuds role, which raises questions about the degree of priority SEAs are putting on the work ombuds do.
  • The report also raises important questions about the pressures that ombuds face when it comes to their ability to be independent and impartial while being employed by SEAs, and in some cases while simultaneously serving as ESEA program coordinators.  Page 16 of the report is particularly illuminating on this score: “While model professional standards for governmental ombuds call for them to function independently of their organization’s line and staff reporting structures and to avoid actual conflicts of interest and the appearance of such conflict, these standards do not directly apply in this case, given the parameters of ESEA. Education officials noted that ESEA does not require ombuds to function independently from the state educational agency, nor does Education envision ombuds as having full independence from other state officials.”
  • The report goes on to add that “Education has chosen not to include in its guidance examples of how states could consider addressing impartiality concerns that may arise as ombuds fulfill their responsibilities. If private school stakeholders do not view ombuds as impartial, they may be reluctant to go to them for information or assistance in resolving disputes with school districts, potentially resulting in private school students and staff not receiving services to which they may be entitled.”
  • “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” and “nearly all ombuds reported that additional training on topics such as legal requirements related to equitable services and monitoring and enforcing those requirements would be helpful.”
  • The report’s pays significant attention to the difficulties private schools often face in receiving equitable services from school districts — “30 of the 34 private school stakeholders we interviewed told us private schools in some cases faced challenges receiving equitable services.”
  • The following anecdote on page 31 is something that will undoubtedly ring familiar with private school leaders across the country: “Another private school leader at a rural school said that the district contracted with a services provider who had to travel a long distance to the school to provide tutoring services. Because the provider’s travel time was paid for out of the funds available to provide equitable services, this school leader believed that if the district had instead contracted with a service provider nearer the private school, the school could have received additional tutoring services.”

Read the whole thing, including GAO’s four recommendations, here.