Feds Release Report on Special Education and Dispute Resolution

In preparation for the next IDEA reauthorization, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) conducted a national study of dispute resolution methods used in due process hearings and their effectiveness.  The GAO used statistical analyses, interviews, and surveys to evaluate whether, and to what extent, resolution sessions and mediation affected special education disputes.  The GAO also included information about several alternative dispute resolution methods, including facilitated resolutions and IEP meetings, special education helplines, parent-to-parent assistance, and conflict-resolution training for educators.

Due process hearing rates, measured as the number of hearings per 10,000 students, have declined over the last ten years, with the most significant drops seen in New York, D.C., and Puerto Rico.  States cite mediation and resolution sessions as key factors in this decline.  Although mediations occur less frequently than resolution sessions – which are required by law – mediations tend to be more effective.  Over two-thirds of mediations resulted in agreements; in contrast, less than a quarter of resolution sessions ended conflicts.  States also described using facilitated IEP meetings and facilitated resolution sessions to help parties resolve their differences.  Some states operate a dispute resolution helpline, a service that responds to calls and emails from the public about their options and procedures.  Other agencies support parent-to-parent agencies that assist parents and school district personnel in addressing emerging or active complaints.  Finally, states report that training parents and school district employees to communicate and negotiate helps prevent conflicts from escalating into hearings.

Aside from reviewing the above methods and their effectiveness, the GAO also criticized the Department of Education’s (DOE) data collection in: (1) hearing extensions; (2) parental involvement; and (3) minority overrepresentation.  Hearing officers, the GAO noted, often extend the decision timelines, and this may affect children’s educational options or services.  In New York, for example, 77% of hearing deadlines were extended; that number was 93% in California.  Because the DOE does not collect data on how much time extensions add to hearing decisions, the current data creates an impression that most hearing decisions are timely.  The GAO also criticized the lack of uniform measures in evaluating parent participation and minority overrepresentation in special education.  States collect and analyze this information in different ways; this hinders effective assessments across states.  The DOE disagreed with these conclusions, noted the potential burdens of further data collection, and offered several alternatives, options the GAO later rejected.

The full report is available here.



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