Regulations and protocols at the federal and state levels exist to minimize the disruption public school closures create and to protect finite funding, resources, and student privacy. For students with disabilities and their families, who already have limited access to high quality public school options, school closures can become a nightmare, making enforcement of the regulations and required protocols, critically important. The U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) Office of Inspector General (OIG) concluded, among many findings, in its Nationwide Audit of Oversight of Closed Charter Schools that state education agencies (SEA) did not always meet the federal and state requirements when (1) performing close-out procedures for Federal funds a charter school received, (2) disposing of assets a charter school acquired with Federal funds, and (3) protecting and maintaining student information and records from closed charter schools. The OIG’s findings relate directly to students with disabilities attending charter schools and underscore the critical role state departments of education, charter authorizers, as well as ED play in the responsible management of the precious resources allocated for students requiring special education services and in protecting their personal information.
States receive federal funding to provide services and supports to students with disabilities at their traditional public and charter schools through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Assets such as materials and supplies required to differentiate the curriculum and computers and specialized equipment or devices that assist students with disabilities to learn may be procured using IDEA funding. Separate from funding specific items, both IDEA and the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) outline requirements for maintaining student privacy. Given the perennial achievement gap between students who qualify for special education and their peers, the OIGs determination that states are not always meeting the requirements to close-out federal funds, dispose of assets, nor protect student information in its audit of charter school closures is tantamount to financial and programmatic negligence. Given the scarcity of resources, we simply cannot afford to essentially lose the materials and equipment purchased with federal funds. Furthermore, states must uphold their responsibilities to protect the privacy of all students. It is imperative, therefore that state education agencies take responsibility for adhering to all federal and state-required close-out protocols and request support from the ED when needed.
The ED should fulfill its obligation to ensure that SEAs comply with applicable federal laws and regulations. This includes working with state education agencies to develop and implement effective charter school closure procedures and adequately address issues related to federal grant closeout, disposition of assets purchased with federal funds, and protection and maintenance of student records for closed charter schools. Students, with disabilities and their families are counting on federal and state authorities to work together to make a transition to a new school a positive one, not an event that places their privacy at risk. ED must help states adhere to the laws so that every child is protected to the greatest extent possible.