GAO Special Education Disputes

Special education formal disputes are generally low

GOA summary findings

On September 9, 2003, The General Accounting Office(GAO), submitted its findings about the number of formal disagreements between parents and school districts under IDEA regulations. The report found:

  • Overall disputes are low with about 5 due process hearings per 10,000 students with disabilities and approximately 7 mediations per 10,000 students with disabilities.
  • States have different policies regarding disputes.
  • Four states, California, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and the District of Columbia had high rates of dispute. Among those states California had a rate of 3 due process hearing per 10,000 while the District of Columbia had 336.
  • Disputes most often were initiated due to:
    • fundamental issues of identification of students’ needs for special education services;
    • issues related to development and implementation of individualized education programs (IEP’s);
    • problems in determining the appropriate education setting.

Background information

6.5 million children between the ages of 3 and 21 received special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) in the 2001-2002 school year. Cost of special education programs is approximately eight billion dollars at the national level and over 48 billion dollars at the state level. Parents and schools sometimes disagree about the services provided. When disagreement occurs there are several dispute resolution alternatives available.

Dispute resolution procedures-LEA

The best approach is to resolve the disagreements at the child’s local school. There are steps parents can take at the local education agency (LEA,) at the child’s school, when they disagree with the school. These are less costly and create less stress upon the child as the school and parents work to resolve differences. The best course of action is to work in collaboration with the local school system to create a learning environment that works best for the child’s unique learning needs. This means establishing effective parent/teacher conferences, collaborative IEP meetings, and clear and open lines of communication between the parent and the school staff.

The GAO data suggests that in most cases schools and parents are working well together to meet the unique learning needs of children with disabilities. When parents feel they cannot work effectively with the school to obtain needed services other alternatives exist. These can be costly to both the local school district and the parent.

Formal dispute resolution procedures

Three formal mechanisms are most commonly used to solve disputes. These are: a state complaint procedure and review by the state education agency (SEA); a due process hearing; and mediation.

  1. State education complaint procedure: A state complaint is begins with a signed written complaint that includes a statement about how the school has violated a student’s rights as provided under IDEA. The complaint also includes specific facts upon which the complaint is based.
  2. Due process hearing: An administrative review by an impartial hearing officer of the evidence in a case. This involves examination and cross-examination of witnesses by each party. A final report of facts and decisions is issued by the hearing officer.
  3. Mediation: A negotiation process between parents and the school using an impartial mediator to sort out related issues. The mediator seeks a mutually agreed upon written agreement.

Differences in Formal Dispute Resolution Mechanisms

From GAO Report, September 9, 2003, page 7.

  State Complaint Due process hearing Mediation
Who can request? Any organization or individual A parent, public agency, or the child (at age of majority) A parent, public agency, or the child (at age of majority)
Who decides? State education agency officials. Impartial hearing officer. Mutually between the parties.
Federally prescribed timeline. 60 calendar days 45 calendar days None prescribed but less than 30 days
Relative financial cost to LEA’s and parents. No cost to parents or Lea’s Generally expensive for Lea’s and for parents if they hire an attorney.1 Generally much less expensive than due process hearings
Relative financial costs to SEA’s Generally much less expensive than due process hearings, primarily consists of staff cost to resolve the complaint. Generally expensive to Sea’s primarily for the cost of a hearing officer Generally much less expensive than due process hearings, primarily for the cost of a mediator.

1. If parents win the case, they may also be awarded reasonable attorney fees.