GAO reports detail array of issues related to COVID, segregation, restraint and seclusion

In a series of audits and letters published in recent weeks, the Government Accountability Office has called attention to concerns over the impacts of COVID-related learning loss and trauma, restraint and seclusion rates, and persistent segregation in schools along racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines. The documents also include recommendations to help local educational agencies, state and federal officials respond to and address these challenges.

COVID impacts and implications

In a report to Congressional committees, “Less Academic Progress Overall, Student and Teacher Strain, and Implications for the Future,” the GAO found through a nationwide survey of more than 2,800 K-12 teachers that the pandemic had a significant impact on learning loss and trauma for students as well as teachers.

Some students excelled during distance learning due to increased flexibility to work at their own pace and strong family support. However, “compared to a typical school year, teachers reported that more of their students started the 2020–21 school year behind and made less academic progress,” the report states. As a result, many students ended the year behind grade level expectations. This was especially pronounced among lower grades, according to the report.

For many educators and students, challenges related to school closures were further compounded by the trauma of the pandemic. Some lost parents, other family or friends, while homelessness and unemployment rates spiked — all of which disproportionately harmed vulnerable students and contributed to growing disparities between student populations, according to the GAO. Children of racial and ethnic minority groups accounted for 65 percent of those who lost a primary caregiver in the first year of the pandemic. Further, after two years of particularly challenging working conditions, “teachers are confronting burnout and recent surveys indicate that many are thinking of leaving their jobs.”

Several recommendations were gleaned from surveys of and discussion groups with teachers, principals and parents when asked what would help them address ongoing challenges and better prepare for future learning disruption. Among them:

  • Provide mental health services for students
  • Allow flexibility around the typical school day or year
  • Have dedicated teachers for virtual learning or a dedicated academy for virtual students
  • Provide resources for families such as workshops on supporting students, and financial support like childcare subsidies so older students can focus on school
  • Train students, families, and teachers to use devices and learning platforms

Disability rights, restraint and seclusion

In a letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, GAO officials said the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights must work directly with LEAs to identify the factors that lead to misreporting and underreporting of students who are restrained or secluded in school. During the 2017–18 school year, the most recent year of data available, nearly 102,000 students were subjected to restraint or seclusion. “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 letter states.

The GAO also recommended the department work to combat misinformation surrounding special education rights by ensuring 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, but not all state agencies have updated information to reflect the changes, according to the letter. The department should work with state education agencies to correct inaccurate information on Individuals with Disabilities Education Act services to reflect the new guidance.

Lastly, the GAO found states were underreporting information on management organizations that contract with charter schools, especially virtual charter schools. In order to receive federal funding, charter schools must declare if they contract with for-profit organizations, yet only 16 states have laws requiring charter schools to prove they aren’t run by a for-profit company. The Education Department should help states report accurate data by gathering information on how states determine if charter schools have contracts with management organizations, modifying the instructions for data submissions on charter school contracts, and clarifying the definition of a management organization to include the for-profit status of the organizations, the letter recommended.

Segregation remains an issue despite diverse student population

In a follow up to its 2016 investigation on racial disparity in K-12 schools, the GAO found that while the U.S. student body is more diverse than ever before overall, public schools remain “highly segregated along racial, ethnic and socioeconomic lines.” Specifically, the latest report found more than a third of students (about 18.5 million children) attended a predominantly same-race/ethnicity school during the 2020–21 school year. Nationwide, 14 percent of students attended schools where almost all of the student body was of a single race/ethnicity. Even in California, which saw an increase of about 20 percentage points in the last 20 years in schools with more than 50 percent non-white enrollment, 40 percent of schools in 2019 were “intensely segregated” (defined as having less than 10 percent white enrollment).

As highlighted in a 2021 issue of CSBA’s California Schools, learning in an integrated setting benefits all students. For instance, when a Virginia district ended its bussing program, “both white and minority students scored lower on high school exams, high school graduation and four-year college attendance decreased for white students, and there were large increases in crime for minority males when assigned to schools with more minority students.”

The GAO concluded one cause for the lack of significant improvement is a practice known as district secession, where schools break away from an existing district — often citing a need for more local control — and form their own new district which almost always creates more racial and socioeconomic segregation. These new districts tend to have larger shares of white and Asian American students, and lower shares of Black and Hispanic students, as well as significantly fewer students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, according to the report.

California’s State Board of Education in July denied a proposal to form a new unified school district from the Northgate portion of the Mt. Diablo Unified School District in Contra Costa County, citing findings that it would largely discriminate against Latino families by removing some of the county’s higher-income, white students from the district.