Gushing forth in a daily stream are reports issued by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) scrutinizing the fiscal health and performance of programs bankrolled by the gargantuan federal government.
Flowing by in mid-September were reviews of Veterans Affairs contracting, intellectual property (the Patent Office), long-term care workforce, highway bridges, digital services programs, the Immigrant Investor Program. Then, stunningly, amid the flotsam and jetsam, came one on private school choice!
It should be more than a little unsettling the government’s auditing outfit deems private educational choice to be within its domain. Indeed, some alarm bells go off inside this turgid GAO opus. Nevertheless, the September 12 report began with an upbeat observation about parental freedom of choice in K–12 education: “Participation in voucher and education savings account (ESA) programs, which fund private school tuition and other educational expenses, has more than doubled in the past 5 years,” stated the report.
GAO’s rounded numbers showed an enrollment expansion from 70,000 to 147,000, with funds provided for the students increasing from $400 million to $859 million. This growth, noted GAO, resulted both from the creation of new school choice programs and expansion of existing ones.
Unfortunately, the bulk of the GAO analysis pertains to how much of an irritant to government bureaucracies increasingly popular school choice programs have become. That much can be deduced from a full reading of the wordy headline GAO used: “Private School Choice Programs Are Growing and Can Complicate Providing Certain Federally Funded Services to Eligible Students.”
The crunch stems from the two largest federal spending programs: the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and Title I-A of what was originally the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Both programs are devoted to aiding disabled and disadvantaged students. Interestingly, the bulk of the very same private school choice initiatives criticized by GAO are targeted to those same two types of needy kids.
Federal laws and regulations oblige public school districts to provide so-called “equitable services” under IDEA and Title I to eligible students who attend private schools. Reading tutors and speech therapists are the sort of providers dispatched to the private schools. Districts are authorized to find the private school children in need and decide who needs which services the most.
Until recently, affected special-needs students have been those whom public schools have farmed out willingly to designated private schools. Now that parents themselves are opting out of the public system and choosing their own private schools or service providers, some bureaucrats say they are confused—or perhaps they just have their noses out of joint.
While the U.S. Education Department (USED), which is supposed to referee all this, assured GAO participation in private choice does not eliminate access to equitable services, GAO’s investigators said some states’ officials “expressed confusion about whether a student’s participation in these [private] programs changed their eligibility for these services,” or, in other words, made them ineligible.
GAO investigated voucher and ESA programs in four states that are leaders in the school choice movement: Arizona, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. Without quite saying so outright, the government auditors blamed private choice operators for confusing the poor bureaucrats. One lament is the difficulty states had gathering uniform data because the private schools use differing definitions of ethnicity, extent of disability, and income levels. Well, of course they do, because they operate independently! Nothing discombobulates bureaucrats more than lack of uniformity.
GAO did seem fond of its finding that 17 voucher programs and one ESA program (of the 20 programs studied) required schools to measure student performance “with the same tests required for public school students.”
Most parents want their schools of choice to measure and report scores to them. However, a requirement that testing be government-issued is problematic, because tests drive curriculum. Thus, submitting to a state-required test gravely compromises the freedom of private schools and their patrons.
GAO’s bottom-line recommendation is “Education,” meaning USED, ought to issue a “Guidance” that will clear up all the unseemly confusion. USED graciously said it will. Ominously, the door now appears open for the feds to impose such requirements as uniform testing and data reporting as conditions for receiving IDEA and Title I goodies.
That means gut-check time may be coming for private choice providers. Are a few extra tutors or therapists really worth the loss of your academic freedom? Without naming them, GAO said three private schools turned down Title I equitable services because of what they diplomatically termed the “administrative burden.” They likely meant the damn federal money drains more value than it adds.
Robert Holland (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior fellow for education policy with The Heartland Institute.