(2017, November) | Useful to Parent Centers in working with families of children with disabilities.

What information do parents receive about special education services and rights when enrolling their child with a disability in a “choice” program?
The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigated this issue and reports its findings in its November 2017 publication, Private School Choice: Federal Actions Needed to Ensure Parents are Notified About Changes in Rights for Students with Disabilities (GAO-18-94).

Read the 1-page Highlights of the report:

Read the full report (53 pages, PDF):

Read the accessible PDF version (68 pages):


Background and Context

Growth of voucher and education savings account (ESA) programs has drawn attention to the ways states ensure accountability and transparency to the public and prospective parents. With over half of voucher and ESA programs specifically designed for students with disabilities, there is interest in the information parents receive about special education services and rights when enrolling in a choice program. 

GAO’s Investigation

GAO examined (1) academic, administrative, and financial accountability mechanisms in private choice programs; (2) information available to the public and families on private choice programs and participating schools; and (3) how parents of students with disabilities are informed about changes in rights when enrolling in private choice programs. The agency analyzed information from all voucher and ESA programs operating in January 2017 and interviewed officials from Education, national groups, and six of the largest private choice programs. It also reviewed websites of a nationally representative sample of private voucher schools, and worked with private choice groups and national organizations to contact families that recently interacted with a choice program. GAO interviewed all 17 families that responded.

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GAO’s Findings

GAO found that private school choice programs inconsistently provide information on changes in rights and protections under IDEA when parents move a child with a disability from public to private school. In 2001, the U.S. Department of Education (Education) strongly encouraged states and school districts to notify parents of these changes, but according to Education, IDEA does not provide it with statutory authority to require this notification.

According to GAO’s review of information provided by private school choice programs, and as confirmed by program officials, in school year 2016-17, 83% of students enrolled in a program designed specifically for students with disabilities were in a program that provided either no information about changes in IDEA rights or provided information that Education confirmed contained inaccuracies about these changes. Officials from national stakeholder groups, private choice programs, and Education told GAO that some parents do not understand that certain key IDEA rights and protections—such as discipline procedures and least restrictive environment requirements—change when parents move their child from public to private school.

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Ensuring that quality information is communicated consistently and accurately to parents can help address potential misunderstanding about changes in federal special education rights. GAO recommends that Congress should consider requiring states to notify parents/guardians about changes in federal special education rights when a parent moves a child from public to private school. In addition, GAO recommends Education review and correct inaccurate IDEA-related information provided by states.