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Growth of School Choice Can Complicate Federal Funding, Watchdog Agency Says

Officials often struggle to determine if students participating in school choice programs like vouchers and education savings accounts are receiving the "equitable services" they are entitled to under federal law, such as speech therapy and reading tutors, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

"Private School Choice Programs Are Growing and Can Complicate Providing Certain Federally Funded Services to Eligible Students" was published Monday by the GAO and prepared at the request of Reps. Marcia Fudge, D-Ohio, Gwen Moore, D-Wis., and Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis. It says that the U.S. Department of Education has not provided guidance to states and districts on this issue, a fact brought up by state education officials.

The report states that a majority of the vouchers and ESA programs have placed new requirements on participating private schools, such as entry-level requirements for teachers. But at the same time, the GAO says officials that it interviewed in four states with such choice programs (Arizona, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin) said those programs complicate their ability to provide required educational services to private school students. And officials in two states said they were confused about whether students' ability to receive these services was affected by receiving vouchers or using ESAs.

Need a quick primer? Here's a brief description of what "equitable services" means, from the report:

Under Title I-A, participating school districts must, after timely and meaningful consultation with private school officials, provide eligible private school students, their teachers, and their families with Title I services that are equitable in comparison to those services provided to eligible public school students, their teachers, and their families.

There are similar requirements for students eligible for services under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act:

[S]chool districts are required to provide special education and related services—such as speech language therapy or assistive technology—to the extent consistent with the number and location of children with disabilities enrolled by their parents in private schools located in the school district.

There's a lot in the report about what these schools consider when it comes to admissions, how private schools use different definitions for different classifications of students, and related issues. And districts do have some flexibility when it comes to how they prioritize money for equitable services. For a sense of scale, here's the number of private school students getting equitable services, the cost in Title I and IDEA dollars, and the share of total Title I and IDEA money set aside for private school students, in a few selected districts in those four aforementioned states.


The part of the report focusing on the state- and school-level challenges and uncertainty about eligible services, however, highlights a few concerns. 

Here's how the report discusses challenges when it comes to this IDEA requirement:

[I]n one state we visited, we found instances in which state and district officials reported conflicting information about whether private school choice students were eligible for IDEA equitable services. Education and state officials told us that private school choice students were considered to be parentally placed private school students, and eligibility for IDEA services would not be affected by being in a choice program. However, officials at one district within the state said these students would not be eligible for IDEA services, even if otherwise qualified.

And here's how challenges for Title I "equitable services" played out in at least a few districts:

For example, officials in one district also said that because more of its federal Title I-A funds were used to provide services to increasing numbers of private schools students, the district was no longer able to pay for additional services or develop programs for those public school students who were most academically at risk. In addition, officials from two other districts described providing services to students in private schools as less efficient because teachers or tutors spend time traveling from school to school.

A summary of the report says, "Providing quality information to clarify requirements and responsibilities—including adapting to emerging trends—is a key federal internal control. Providing such information would help clarify how to implement equitable services requirements in the context of growing private school choice programs."

One final piece of food for thought: The report notes that ESSA changed how Title I handles the equitable services requirement that could result in more federal money ultimately being set aside for these services to private school students.

"Officials from two districts we visited expressed concern about the upcoming changes to the Title I-A equitable services provisions, especially in the context of expanding private school choice programs," the report states.

The GAO report states that as of the 2014-15 school year, there were 20 voucher programs and two ESA programs.

Read the full report below:

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