A government watchdog report recommends the U.S. Department of Education strengthen training and guidance for state administrators who oversee learning supports that private school students are entitled to under federal law.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office found that private and public school officials — as well as state administrators overseeing federally-funded supports known as equitable services — struggle with identifying and counting children eligible for services. The GAO reported these officials face additional difficulties coordinating with multiple school districts or with private schools across school district boundaries.
Equitable services that private school students and staff may be entitled to as required by the Every Student Succeeds Act could include tutoring, English language supports and professional development.
Equitable services are for eligible private school students, staff or families, but not the private school itself. These services can be provided directly by the school district or through a third party, and private schools can opt to not receive equitable services.
There is a related but separate equitable services provision under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act for parentally-placed private school children with disabilities.
There are about 4.6 million students attending private schools, according to the GAO.
The GAO survey of state administrators overseeing equitable services under ESSA, who are also known as ombuds, found that 94% said they needed support with the equitable services legal requirements, and 92% said they wanted guidance with monitoring and enforcement.
Since 2015, ombuds report receiving 38 complaints from private schools about not receiving equitable services with 13 of those being appealed to the Education Department. GAO found the Education Department conducted investigations and issued decisions on delayed timelines.
In a response to a draft of the report, Education Department officials said most of the appeals it received were in 2020 and 2021, when the nation's school systems were confronting the COVID-19 pandemic. The Education Department also noted areas of success because of the addition of state-level ombuds with the passage of 2015's ESSA, such as the low number of complaints and the fostering of relationships between public and private school officials.
Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., chair of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, requested that GAO examine this issue.
In a statement, Foxx said, "If this is not a concerning revelation, I don’t know what is. For private schools to receive all the support they need, ombuds must be equipped to know the law and adjudicate it fairly, and the Department of Education should do much better at ensuring ombuds have the capacity to do so.”