GAO reports progress and additional changes needed to support students

The U.S. Department of Education has made progress over the last year in raising awareness of the dangers of lead in drinking water in K-12 facilities and improved cybersecurity management, but several key priority areas remain in need of attention, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report made public on July 7.

Among the remaining priority topics are improving data quality regarding instances of restraint and seclusion, and helping states provide accurate information to stakeholders about the rights of students with disabilities when they are placed in a private school by their parent or guardian.

Aligning with calls from education advocates and officials across the country, the report also called for improved collection and public reporting of districts’ use of federal COVID-19 relief dollars. Doing so could better reflect the gaps between when a district commits to using the funds and when they are actually recorded as spent, according to the report, which suggested the Education Department include obligations data in its annual report on local and state education spending.

“The [Department of Education] agreed with this recommendation and plans to collaborate with states to develop reporting processes that provide greater clarity on state and school district spending,” the GAO report said. “To fully address it, the agency should provide data on obligations and expenditures to help policymakers understand how funds are being used to address the pandemic-related education needs of schoolchildren.”

Progress made since last round of recommendations

Since its April 2020 letter, the GAO noted that the Education Department had implemented three of six priority recommendations:

  • Made more critical by the nationwide shift to distance learning, the department updated its cyber risk management framework to incorporate key elements of a cybersecurity risk management strategy, including a statement of risk tolerance and acceptable risk response strategies. “The agency now has a better organization-wide understanding of acceptable risk levels and appropriate risk response strategies to protect its systems and data,” according to the report.
  • The Education Department collaborated with the Environmental Protection Agency to address the continued threat of lead in school drinking water by encouraging testing for lead in schools, providing information online and through a new mobile app, and supporting school safety officials on incorporating lead testing and remediation into school emergency planning.

Remaining priorities

While the GAO noted that the Education Department’s recommendation implementation rate was 77 percent over the past four years, there remain critical recommendations to ensure the well-being of students that have yet to be fully addressed.

In November 2017, the GAO recommended that the Education Department review information provided by states related to changes in federal special education rights when a parent places a student with a disability in a private school, and work with states to correct inaccurate information. Proposed guidance includes information on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act services for parentally placed private school students. Upon final issuance, the agency will use the guidance to work with states with policies and procedures that are inconsistent with the information. The report states that this recommendation will be considered implemented once the identified states have corrected inaccurate information.

In April 2020, the GAO reported problems with data quality and control processes that cast doubt on the accuracy of these data, making it difficult to determine the frequency and prevalence of restraint and seclusion among K-12 students.

The GAO made three recommendations related to the quality of data collected on incidents of restraint and seclusion to be carried out by the assistant secretary for the Office for Civil Rights:

  • Develop and implement a Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC) business rule that targets schools and districts that report very low numbers of incidents and set data-driven thresholds to detect such incidents.
  • Develop and implement a CRDC business rule that targets schools and districts that report very high numbers of incidents and set data-driven thresholds to detect such incidents.
  • Identify the factors that cause underreporting and misreporting of restraint and seclusion and take steps to help school districts overcome these issues.

The Education Department reported in April 2021 that it is developing a responsive business rule, expected to be issued in January 2022. To fully implement these recommendations, the GAO said the department needs to address data quality problems by applying adequate business rules at the time districts submit their data and take steps to address the underlying causes of misreporting.