Parents’ rights groups continue to raise concerns about K-12 public schools not being forthcoming with what their children are learning in classrooms, an issue state policymakers across the country addressed with curriculum transparency bills during 2022 legislative sessions. But beyond what’s being taught in classrooms, there are other areas in K-12 education that need more reporting.
Taxpayers and the tens of millions of families who rely on public schools to educate their children should expect transparency and accountability in all aspects of education operations. But public schools still have a lot of work to do to provide stakeholders with better data—particularly when it comes to special education, school capacity, and student transportation.
Available data indicates that public school special education populations grew substantially over the past few decades. What’s more, the growth of special education populations has varied substantially between states. These trends alone raise important questions about why this population is growing and how these students are being served. But beyond basic federal data showing special education population trends by state, and national snapshots of students in various disability categories and how much time they spend in regular classrooms, researchers and advocates lack quality data to work with.
Most states provide district-level data on special education populations and disability subgroups and other data that are necessary to comply with federal law. Questions remain as to how districts place these students on individualized education plans (IEPs), the kinds of services special education students receive, and how these students are performing academically. Remarkably, even the question of how much public schools spend on special education services lacks a clear answer at the national level and isn’t reliably answered at the state level.
There are a few potential reasons why special education data is limited, one being that smaller school districts can’t report granular disability data without violating student privacy. Also, dividing expenditures by student need groups can be tricky because of how services are often shared across different subsets of students.
Paraprofessionals and specialists often divide their time between different students and schools, and they aren’t always working exclusively with IEP students. Additionally, districts vary widely in their IEP placement practices and the services they offer to students with certain needs. This creates challenges for having standardized data collection at the state and federal levels. Nonetheless, until state and local professionals can navigate these issues, policymakers and families will continue to be in the dark as to how they can better serve special education students.
Open enrollment is an increasingly popular form of public school choice that allows families to transfer to public schools outside of their residential assignment zones and in neighboring school districts. But according to a recent 50-state study published by Reason Foundation, most states have weak open enrollment policies and fail to give families ready access to public schools that have space. A key component of a strong open enrollment policy is for states to require that schools report how many open seats they have so that families know where they have options. But according to the Reason study, only seven states have policies requiring schools to annually report open seats.
The lack of robust capacity reporting requirements makes it easy for school districts to reject open-enrollment students for arbitrary reasons. This limits parent options and prevents students from finding a learning environment that best meets their needs. More generally, taxpayers should be allowed to know which schools are under-enrolled when their districts want to raise money to expand facilities or hire additional staff.
Just over half of students get to school using school district transportation services, most often riding a traditional yellow school bus. But that number has steadily declined over past decades as school bus driver shortages plague school districts and transportation costs climb. School transportation is in need of innovation—but that’s hard to do when there are insufficient public data on school transportation services.
How far are students transported in each district, on average? How much space is there on school buses during their routes? How long is the average student’s bus ride? Answering these questions can allow districts, policymakers, and transportation providers to better serve kids en route to and from school. But in a 2017 paper, Bellwether Education Partners analysts Phillip Burgoyne-Allen and Jennifer Schiess noted “Most transit systems routinely account for basic information like the cost per ride, percent of seat capacity utilized, length of ride times, and rate of on-time departures and arrivals, but many school transportation systems fail to collect these data consistently, if at all.”
A good first step to improving any policy area is to enhance transparency so that stakeholders can find common ground on what the problems are. Heading into 2023 legislative sessions, state policymakers should take stock of the areas in which public schools aren’t providing sufficient data and prioritize transparency improvements.
A version of this column previously appeared in RealClear Education.