(2019, November) | Offers current data on the use of IDEA’s dispute resolution mechanisms in selected states.

If parents and school districts disagree over special education services provided under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, either party has options to resolve the dispute, such as mediation or filing a due process complaint.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) was asked to review parents’ use of IDEA dispute resolution options. GAO’s findings are detailed in its November 2019 report entitled Special Education: IDEA Dispute Resolution Activity in Selected States Varied Based on School Districts’ Characteristics (GAO-20-22). The 58-page report discusses:

  • how often IDEA dispute resolution options are used, and whether use in selected states varies across school district-level socioeconomic or demographic characteristics; and
  • what challenges parents face in using IDEA dispute resolution options and how Education and selected states help facilitate parents’ use of these options.

As is its standard practice, GAO also released a 1-page Highlights summary.

Access both the full report and the 1-page Highlights online, at:
https://www.gao.gov/mobile/products/GAO-20-22

PDF of the full report | https://www.gao.gov/assets/710/702514.pdf

PDF of the Highlights | https://www.gao.gov/assets/710/702509.pdf

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About the Study

GAO reviewed publicly available data on dispute resolution at the state level and collected data at the school district level from 5 states—Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, and Pennsylvania—selected based on the number of disputes initiated and school district characteristics, among other factors. GAO also reviewed relevant federal laws, regulations, and Department of Education and state documents; and interviewed ED officials, state officials, staff from organizations providing technical assistance in these 5 states, and other national advocacy organizations

Among the Findings

  • In school year 2016-17, 35,142 special education disputes were filed nationwide.
  • In 5 selected states GAO reviewed, dispute resolution options varied across school districts with different socioeconomic and demographic characteristics.
  • A greater proportion of very high-income school districts had dispute resolution activity as well as higher rates of dispute activity than very low-income districts in most of the 5 states GAO reviewed.
  • GAO also found that in most of these states, a smaller proportion of predominately Black and/or Hispanic districts had dispute resolution activity compared to districts with fewer minority students; however, predominately Black and/or Hispanic districts generally had higher rates of such activity.
  • Technical assistance providers and others told GAO that parents used dispute resolution most often for issues related to school decisions about evaluations, placement, services and supports, and discipline of their children.

Challenges Faced by Parents | Parents may face a variety of challenges in using IDEA dispute resolution. Stakeholders cited challenges such as:

  • paying for attorneys and expert witnesses at a due process hearing;
  • parents’ reluctance to initiate disputes because they feel disadvantaged by the school district’s knowledge and financial resources; and
  • parents’ lack of time off from work to attend due process hearings.

Addressing the Challenges |The Department of Education and states provide several kinds of support that, in part, may address some of these challenges.  For example, ED and state agencies provide technical assistance to support parents’ understanding of their rights under IDEA and to facilitate their use of dispute resolution options (e.g., providing informational documents and phone help lines to parents).

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