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Report to the Ranking Minority Member, Committee on Health, Education, 
Labor and Pensions, U.S. Senate:

United States General Accounting Office:

GAO:

September 2003:

Special Education:

Numbers of Formal Disputes Are Generally Low and States Are Using 
Mediation and Other Strategies to Resolve Conflicts:

Dispute Resolution under IDEA:

GAO-03-897:

GAO Highlights:

Highlights of GAO-03-897, a report to the Ranking Minority Member, 
Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, U.S. Senate 

Why GAO Did This Study:

In the 2001-02 school year, about 6.5 million children aged 3 through 
21 received special education services under the Individuals with 
Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). On occasion, parents and schools 
disagree about what kinds of special services, if any, are needed for 
children and how they should be provided. Conflicts between school 
officials and families sometimes become costly, both financially and 
in terms of the harm done to relationships.

As requested, GAO determined the kinds of issues that result in formal 
disputes, the extent to which the three formal mechanisms (due process 
hearings, mediations, and state complaints) are employed for 
resolution, the role of mediation and other alternative dispute 
resolution strategies in selected locations, and whether local 
education agencies received adequate and timely complaint 
notifications from states. To address these objectives, GAO reviewed 
available national data and conducted site visits to state and local 
education agencies in four states--California, Massachusetts, Ohio, 
and Texas.

What GAO Found:

Officials in four states told GAO that disagreements usually arose 
between parents and school districts over fundamental issues of 
identifying students’ need for special education, developing and 
implementing their individualized education programs, and determining 
the appropriate education setting.

While national data on disputes are limited and inexact, the available 
information showed that formal dispute resolution activity, as 
measured by the number of due process hearings, state complaints, and 
mediations, was generally low. According to the National Association 
of State Directors of Special Education, while requests for hearings 
increased from 7,532 to 11,068 over a 5-year period, the number of due 
process hearings held decreased from 3,555 to 3,020; much of the 5-
year decline occurred in New York. Additionally, most due process 
hearings were concentrated in five states—California, Maryland, New 
Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania—and the District of Columbia.

Numbers of Due Process Hearings Requested and Held Nationwide from 
1996 through 2000:

[See PDF for image]

[End of figure]
 
Overall, dispute resolution activity was generally low relative to the 
number of students with disabilities. About 5 due process hearings 
were held per 10,000 students with disabilities. National studies also 
reported no more than an estimated 7 mediations per 10,000 students 
and about 10 state complaints per 10,000 students.

States GAO visited emphasized mediation in resolving disputes and made 
it more available than federal law required. Some locations had 
developed additional strategies for early resolution of disagreements 
between parents and school districts. Finally, school district 
officials in the four states said they had few problems with state 
complaint notifications, and problems encountered had little impact on 
the timeliness of the complaint process: state and local education 
officials appeared to be working together to overcome them.

What GAO Recommends:

www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-03-897.

To view the full product, including the scope and methodology, click 
on the link above. For more information, contact Marnie Shaul at (202) 
512-7215 or shaulm@gao.gov.

[End of section]

Contents:

Letter:

Results in Brief:

Background:

In Selected Locations, Disputes between Schools and Families Were 
Usually over Student Identifications, Education Programs, and 
Placements:

Available Data Indicate That Dispute Resolution Activity Was Generally 
Low; Due Process Hearings Were Concentrated in a Few Locations:

States We Visited Were Emphasizing Mediation, and Some Locations Used 
Additional Strategies:

State Notification Problems Were Generally Minor and Had Little Effect 
on Timeliness:

Concluding Observations:

Agency Comments:

Appendix I: Scope and Methodology:

Appendix II: Levels of Dispute Resolution Activity in the Four Urban 
and Four Rural School Districts Visited:

Appendix III: Comments from the Department of Education:

Appendix IV: GAO Contacts and Staff Acknowledgments:

GAO Contacts:

Staff Acknowledgments:

Tables:

Table 1: Key Differences in Formal Dispute Resolution Mechanisms:

Table 2: Dispute Resolution Activity in California, Massachusetts, 
Ohio, and Texas, Fiscal Years 2000-02:

Table 3: Dispute Resolution Activity in Urban and Rural School 
Districts over a 3-Year Period, Fiscal Years 2000-02:

Figures:

Figure 1: Numbers of Due Process Hearings Requested and Held Nationwide 
from 1996 through 2000:

Figure 2: Numbers of Due Process Hearings Held in 5 States and the 
District of Columbia Compared to the Rest of the United States, 1996-
2000:

Abbreviations:

CADRE: Consortium for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special 
Education:

IDEA: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act:

IEP: individualized education program:

LEA: local education agency:

NASDSE: National Association of State Directors of Special Education:

OSEP: Office of Special Education Programs:

SEA: state education agency:

SEEP: Special Education Expenditure Project:

SLIIDEA: Study of State and Local Implementation and Impact of the 
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act:

United States General Accounting Office:

Washington, DC 20548:

September 9, 2003:

The Honorable Edward M. Kennedy 
Ranking Minority Member 
Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions 
United States Senate:

Dear Senator Kennedy:

In the 2001-02 school year, about 6.5 million children aged 3 through 
21 received special education services under the Individuals with 
Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) at a federal cost of approximately $8 
billion and more than $48 billion in state costs.[Footnote 1] On 
occasion, parents and schools disagree about what kinds of special 
services, if any, are needed for children and how they should be 
provided. Disagreements between school officials and families that 
cannot be resolved quickly sometimes become formal disputes that can be 
costly, both financially and in terms of the harm done to 
relationships. In May 2003, the Special Education Expenditure Project 
(SEEP) reported that school districts spent at least $90 million on 
resolving such disputes in the 1999-2000 school year.

School districts and families have at least three formal mechanisms for 
resolving disputes: state complaint procedures, due process hearings, 
and mediation.[Footnote 2] A state complaint procedure is a review by 
the state education agency (SEA) to determine whether a state or a 
local school district has violated IDEA. A due process hearing is an 
administrative agency process, in which an impartial hearing officer 
receives evidence, provides for the examination and cross-examination 
of witnesses by each party, and then issues a report of findings of 
fact and decisions. To provide an alternative mechanism for resolving 
conflicts in a way that may be less costly and less adversarial, the 
1997 amendments to IDEA required that states offer voluntary mediation 
when a request for a due process hearing is filed. Mediation is a 
negotiating process that employs an impartial mediator to help the 
parties in conflict resolve their disputes with a mutually accepted 
written agreement. While school districts and families are not required 
to choose this option, the legislation strongly encouraged states to 
promote the use of mediation to resolve disagreements.

This report responds to your request that we determine (1) the kinds of 
issues that result in formal disputes, (2) the extent to which the 
three formal mechanisms are employed for resolution, (3) the role of 
mediation and other alternative dispute resolution strategies in 
selected locations, and (4) whether local education agencies received 
adequate and timely complaint notifications from states. To identify 
what kinds of issues result in formal disputes between parents and 
school districts, we made site visits to SEAs and local education 
agencies (LEA) in California, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Texas. We 
selected these states, in part, because they varied in their volume of 
formal dispute activity and were geographically diverse. To determine 
the extent to which various dispute resolution mechanisms were 
employed, we reviewed data from four nationwide studies.[Footnote 3] 
These studies employed somewhat different measures for due process and 
mediations, which contributed to the variation in the findings 
reported. We collected information from each of the four states we 
visited, and also interviewed state education officials, educators in 
local school districts, and parent resource and advocacy groups. We 
also met with SEA officials and other experts in Iowa to obtain 
information about their mediation system and other alternative dispute 
resolution strategies.[Footnote 4] To determine whether LEAs have 
received timely notifications from states that a complaint has been 
filed, we interviewed educators in one urban and one rural school 
district in each of the four states we visited. Appendix I contains a 
more detailed description of our methodology.

Results in Brief:

The four states we visited reported that disputes between school 
districts and families have often centered on fundamental issues of 
identifying students' need for special education, the development and 
implementation of their individualized education programs (IEP), and 
the educational setting in which they were placed. For example, school 
officials and parents sometimes disagreed about what setting would 
afford the appropriate educational placement for a student--a regular 
classroom, a special needs classroom, or a specialized school. Such 
conflicts can lead to formal disputes. Officials in six of the eight 
school districts we visited mentioned that disputes had resulted from 
decisions over students' educational placements.

While data are limited and inexact, four national studies indicate that 
the use of the three formal dispute resolution mechanisms has been 
generally low relative to the number of children with disabilities. Due 
process hearings, the most resource-intense dispute mechanism, were the 
least used nationwide. Using data from the National Association of 
State Directors of Special Education, we calculated that nationwide, in 
2000, about 5 due process hearings were held per 10,000 students with 
disabilities. According to the these data, over three-quarters of the 
due process hearings had been held in five states--California, 
Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania--and the District of 
Columbia. Mediation activity was also low. Another national study 
reported in 2003 that the median number of mediations for states was 4 
for every 10,000 students with disabilities in school year 1999-2000. 
In May 2003, SEEP estimated that 4,266 mediation cases occurred during 
the 1998-99 school year, which we calculated as a rate of about 7 
mediations per 10,000 students with disabilities. Also, using the 
latter study, we calculated that about 10 state complaints were filed 
for every 10,000 students with disabilities in the 1998-99 school year.

Officials in all four states we visited were emphasizing the use of 
mediation to resolve disputes between families and school districts, 
and some states had developed additional approaches for early 
resolution. State officials told us they found that mediation was 
successful in resolving disputes, strengthening relationships between 
families and educators, saving financial resources, and reaching 
resolution more quickly. The University of the Pacific reported that 93 
percent of the mediation cases in California resulted in agreements 
between families and schools during the 2001-02 fiscal year; the cost 
of a mediator was about one-tenth that of a hearing officer. In 
addition, there were a variety of alternative strategies in place in 
several states and localities to resolve disputes earlier and with less 
acrimony. For example, Iowa exceeded IDEA requirements by allowing 
parties to request a pre-appeal conference to mediate disputes prior to 
filing for a due process hearing. This conference was used five times 
more often by families and educators than mediation in conjunction with 
a filing for a due process hearing. Ohio, on the other hand, developed 
a parent mentor program in which parents of students with disabilities 
were hired to provide training and information about special education 
to educators and other parents of children with disabilities and to 
attend IEP meetings at parent or staff request. Data for measuring the 
cost-effectiveness of this and other such programs, however, were 
limited.

Officials in the eight local school districts we interviewed said they 
had few problems responding to state complaint notifications in a 
timely way; and those problems were generally minor, causing modest 
delays. For example, Los Angeles Unified School District officials said 
that complaint notifications sometimes lacked supporting information, 
such as copies of the specific IEP in question or relevant mediation 
agreements or evaluations. In some cases, the notifications did not 
identify a child's school or date of birth. These shortcomings, 
officials indicated, generally caused only a few days' delay in 
responding appropriately to the state.

Background:

In 1975, a new federal law, now called IDEA, established a federal 
commitment to identify children with disabilities and provide special 
education and related services such as speech and language services, 
psychological services, physical and occupational therapy, and 
transportation.[Footnote 5] The cornerstone principle of IDEA is the 
right of children with disabilities to have a free appropriate public 
education. Under the law, school districts must provide special 
education and related services without charge to parents and the 
services must meet the standards of the SEA. The services for and 
placement of each child must be based on the child's unique needs, not 
on his/her disability. IDEA also stipulates that children with 
disabilities are to be educated in the "least restrictive environment," 
that is, the law requires that children with disabilities are educated 
with children who are nondisabled to the maximum extent appropriate.

About 13 percent of students in federally supported programs, or about 
6.5 million children, receive special education services under IDEA. 
These students have a wide variety of needs that range from mild to 
severe. Children with speech or language impairments, specific learning 
disabilities, emotional disturbance, hearing impairments (including 
deafness), visual impairments (including blindness), orthopedic 
impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, 
or mental retardation, and who need special education and related 
services are eligible under IDEA.

School districts are responsible for identifying students who may have 
a disability and evaluating them in all areas related to the suspected 
disability.[Footnote 6] The evaluation process is intended to provide 
information needed to determine if the student is eligible as defined 
under IDEA. The IEP team decides on, among other things, special 
education and related services that will be provided for the child and 
on the frequency, location, and duration of the services to be 
provided.[Footnote 7]

The law requires two steps for an IEP: (1) a meeting by the IEP team to 
agree about an educational program for a child with a disability and 
(2) preparing a written record of the decisions reached at the meeting. 
Development of the IEP is designed to facilitate communication between 
parents and school personnel and provide an opportunity for resolving 
any differences concerning the special education needs of a child. The 
IEP also documents a commitment of resources for providing special 
education and related services, and schools are responsible for 
ensuring that the child's IEP is carried out as it was written.

Disagreements over eligibility determinations about a child and over an 
IEP can be contentious and occasionally result in disputes.[Footnote 8] 
Many disagreements between families and local schools are resolved 
informally, during initial or follow-up IEP meetings at the local 
schools, or in other venues such as conferences with principals or 
other administrators. On occasion, however, parties have been unable to 
resolve their differences. In these instances, under IDEA, procedural 
safeguards[Footnote 9] afford parents recourse when they disagree with 
school district decisions about their children.

Disagreements can be formally resolved through state complaint 
procedures, through a due process hearing, or through mediation. A 
state complaint is initiated through a signed written complaint that 
includes a statement that a public agency has violated a requirement of 
IDEA and the facts on which the statement is based. If the complaint is 
against a school district, the SEA typically informs the school 
district of the complaint by formal notification, requests 
documentation from the local education officials, and, when necessary, 
conducts an on-site investigation. The SEA must issue a written 
decision to the complainant that addresses each allegation in the 
complaint and contains findings of fact and conclusions, and the reason 
for the SEA's final decision. If violations are found, the decision 
specifies the corrective actions to achieve compliance. A due process 
hearing is an administrative agency process initiated by a written 
request by one of the aggrieved parties to either the SEA or the LEA, 
depending on the state's process. An impartial hearing officer listens 
to witnesses, examines evidence, and issues a written decision. In the 
decision, the hearing officer determines whether violations occurred 
and issues remedies. Mediation is a voluntary process whereby parents 
and school districts agree to meet with an impartial third party in an 
informal setting to reach a resolution that is mutually agreeable. 
Agreements are mutually designed, agreed to, and implemented by the 
parties. While the processes used for resolving disputes vary,[Footnote 
10] other important key differences exist among these three mechanisms 
as well. Table 1 identifies some of the key differences in formal 
dispute resolution mechanisms offered by SEAs.

Table 1: Key Differences in Formal Dispute Resolution Mechanisms:

Who can request; State complaint: Any organization or individual; Due 
process hearing: A parent, public agency, or the child (at age of 
majority); Mediation: A parent, public agency, or the child (at age of 
majority).

Who decides; State complaint: State education agency officials; Due 
process hearing: Impartial hearing officer; Mediation: Mutually between 
the parties.

Federally prescribed timeline; State complaint: 60 calendar days; Due 
process hearing: 45 calendar days; Mediation: None prescribed but 
generally less than 30 days.

Relative financial cost to LEAs and parents; State complaint: No cost 
to parents or LEAs; Due process hearing: Generally expensive for LEAs 
and for parents if they hire an attorney[A]; Mediation: Generally much 
less expensive than due process hearings[B].

Relative financial cost to SEAs; State complaint: Generally much less 
expensive than due process hearings, primarily consists of staff cost 
to resolve the complaint; Due process hearing: Generally expensive for 
SEAs, primarily for the cost of a hearing officer; Mediation: Generally 
much less expensive than due process hearings, primarily for the cost 
of a mediator.

Source: Information on who can request the three mechanisms was 
obtained from 34 C.F.R., Ch. III, sections 300.662, 300.507, and 
300.517; who decides the three mechanisms was obtained from 34 C.F.R., 
Ch. III, sections 300.661, 300.508, and 300.506; federally prescribed 
timelines for complaints and due process hearings were obtained from 34 
C.F.R., Ch. III, sections 300.661 and 300.511, information about the 
timeline for mediation was obtained from state education officials in 
the states visited; and information about relative financial cost were 
obtained from state and local education officials in the states 
visited.

[A] If parents prevail, they may be awarded reasonable attorney's fees.

[B] Attorneys are more often used during due process hearings, but, in 
most states, parties are allowed legal representation during mediation. 
However, the parents would typically be responsible for their 
attorney's fees during mediation.

[End of table]

Parents and other parties can generally choose which mechanism to use 
to resolve their dispute. Parents have the right to request a due 
process hearing at any time over any issue related to the 
identification, evaluation, or educational placement or the provision 
of a free appropriate public education to the student. They may also 
file both due process requests and written state complaints 
simultaneously, but the SEA must set aside any part of the state 
complaint that is addressed in the due process hearing until the 
conclusion of the hearing. Any issue in the complaint not addressed in 
the due process hearing must be resolved within the time frames and 
procedures consistent with the state complaint requirements. Finally, 
although either parents or school districts can file a request for a 
due process hearing, this mechanism is potentially very costly to both 
parties, in terms of financial expenses and relationships. While school 
districts and parents are responsible for their own attorney's fees and 
other associated expenses, the hearing officer is paid for by the 
state.[Footnote 11]

According to the National Association of State Directors of Special 
Education (NASDSE), due process systems are structured similarly across 
the states with one major distinction--about two-thirds of the states 
use a one-tier system in which the hearing is held only at the state 
level. About one-third of the states use a two-tier system in which a 
hearing occurs at a local level, usually the school or district with 
the right to appeal to a state-level hearing officer or panel.[Footnote 
12] Even though the 1997 amendments to IDEA required states to make 
mediation available as a voluntary alternative to parents or school 
districts when they request a due process hearing, most states had 
mediation systems in place much earlier. In September 1994, NASDSE 
reported that Connecticut and Massachusetts were the first states (in 
1975) to implement formal mediation systems. By 1985, 15 more states 
had implemented mediation, and over the next decade 22 additional 
states had mediation systems.

Education's Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) is responsible 
for overall administration and allocation of federal funds for states' 
implementation of IDEA programs. In addition, OSEP is charged with 
assessing the impact and effectiveness of state and local efforts to 
provide a free appropriate public education to children and youth with 
disabilities. OSEP has contracted for two major research studies that 
focus, in part, on dispute resolution activities. One of these, 
conducted by Abt Associates, the Study of State and Local 
Implementation and Impact of the Individuals with Disabilities 
Education Act (SLIIDEA) will include nationwide data over a 5-year 
period (2000-04); a report on selected findings was published in 
January 2003. The second study, SEEP, is being conducted by the 
American Institutes for Research. In May 2003, this project reported on 
procedural safeguards and related expenditures for dispute resolution 
from survey data of a nationwide sample of LEAs. Since states are not 
required to collect or report data on dispute resolution activity, 
these studies, along with two studies by NASDSE, provide the most 
recently available information on the prevalence of formal dispute 
activity.[Footnote 13] However, each of these studies has limitations, 
which are discussed in appendix I.

Under IDEA, Education also provides funds to grantees for parent 
centers. The parent training and information centers and community 
parent resource centers provide a variety of services, including 
helping families obtain appropriate education and services for their 
children with disabilities, training and information for parents and 
professionals, connecting children with disabilities to community 
resources that can address their needs, and resolving problems between 
families and schools or other agencies. Each state has at least 1 
parent center and, currently, there are 105 parent centers in the 
United States. According to the Technical Assistance Alliance for 
Parent Centers, the national coordinating office, parent centers 
provided assistance to nearly 1 million parents and professionals 
during the 2001-02 school year.[Footnote 14]

In Selected Locations, Disputes between Schools and Families Were 
Usually over Student Identifications, Education Programs, and 
Placements:

Formal disputes between schools and families in the 4 states we visited 
ranged from identifying a student's disabilities to developing and 
implementing the IEP and the student's placement. Officials in these 
states told us that disputes frequently arose between families and 
school districts over (1) identifications, that is, whether children 
were eligible for IDEA services and how their eligibility 
determinations were made; (2) the types of special education and 
related services, if any, they needed; (3) whether schools carried out 
the education programs as written; and (4) whether schools could 
provide an appropriate educational environment for certain 
students.[Footnote 15]

SEA and LEA officials told us that schools and parents occasionally 
disagreed about whether or not a child needed special education 
services. On the one hand, a school may want to evaluate a child 
because it believes he or she may have a disability and, in this case, 
the school must evaluate the child at no cost to the family. A parent 
may also ask for the child to be evaluated, but if the school does not 
think the child has a disability it may refuse to evaluate him or her. 
Parents who disagree must take appropriate steps to challenge the 
school's decision. Conversely, for a variety of reasons, parents may 
not want the child to receive special education services. For example, 
the family may disagree with the school's decision about whether or not 
the child has a disability, or the parent may be concerned about the 
possibility of negative perceptions about special education 
identification. Officials in five of the eight school districts we 
visited mentioned that disputes occurred because parents wanted or did 
not want their children identified for special education.

Another issue that existed in some school districts was over the 
availability of related services, such as speech and language services 
and occupational therapy. Disputes sometimes occurred as a result of 
problems in providing related services, including the types, amounts, 
methods, or the failure to provide services. Speech and language 
services, for example, were mentioned as a recurring problem in some 
areas because of the shortage of specialists available to provide these 
services. Officials in six of the eight school districts we visited 
identified having disagreements with parents regarding the provision of 
speech and language services.

SEA and LEA officials also identified a number of issues related to the 
IEP that caused disagreements between parents and school districts. For 
example, we were told that disagreements had occurred because parents 
believed the school had not implemented the IEP as agreed upon. 
Moreover, parents and schools also disagreed about whether the school 
had chosen the appropriate instructional methods for a child. For 
example, parents may want a child with autism to receive an intensive 
behavioral interventions program that consists of one-on-one 
instruction with a trained therapist. Because this type of instruction 
could be very costly to the LEA, school officials told us they would 
like the flexibility to consider a less expensive but suitable 
alternative approach as part of the student's IEP. Officials in five of 
the eight school districts we visited mentioned that disputes with 
parents resulted from the instructional methods chosen or preferred by 
the school, particularly for students with autism.

We also found that school officials and parents sometimes disagreed 
about whether a placement was the appropriate and least restrictive 
environment for a child. For instance, some educators have contended 
that a child should attend classes primarily for students with 
disabilities, while parents believed their children would perform 
better in a regular classroom. Some disputes about placement also 
resulted from the parents' desire to have their children taught outside 
the public school system. Because serving a child outside the school 
district can be very expensive, school districts preferred, whenever 
feasible, to keep a child within the district. Officials in six local 
school districts we visited mentioned that disputes had occurred over 
decisions about a child's educational setting.

Available Data Indicate That Dispute Resolution Activity Was Generally 
Low; Due Process Hearings Were Concentrated in a Few Locations:

While national data on disputes are limited and inexact, the reported 
available information indicates that formal dispute resolution 
activity, as measured by the number of due process hearings, state 
complaints, and mediations, was generally low. According to a 2002 
NASDSE report, the nationwide number of due process hearings held--the 
most expensive form of the three dispute resolution mechanisms--was 
generally low for a 5-year period that ended in 2000, with most 
hearings occurring in a few locations.[Footnote 16] Finally, based on 
national data from three studies, the rates of mediations and state 
complaints were also low, but somewhat higher than due process 
hearings.

The Number of Due Process Hearings Held Nationwide Was Low and Most 
Occurred in a Few States and the District of Columbia:

While the total number of due process hearings held nationally was low 
over a 5-year period from 1996-2000, most hearings were concentrated in 
a few locations. In April 2002, NASDSE reported that, over the 5-year 
period, requests for hearings steadily increased from 7,532 to 
11,068.[Footnote 17] Because requests for due process hearings are 
frequently withdrawn or the parties resolve their issues through other 
means, most requests do not lead to formal hearings. NASDSE reported 
that the number of due process hearings held was low and had decreased 
from 3,555 to 3,020.[Footnote 18]'[Footnote 19] We calculated that due 
process hearings occurred at a low rate of about 5 per 10,000 students 
with disabilities in 2000. (See fig. 1 for the number of hearings 
requested and held nationwide from 1996 through 2000.)[Footnote 20]

Figure 1: Numbers of Due Process Hearings Requested and Held Nationwide 
from 1996 through 2000:

[See PDF for image]

Note: This figure does not include data on hearings held at tier 2.

[End of figure]

However, while the number of due process hearings held nationwide 
decreased over the 5-year period, much of the decline occurred in New 
York, which experienced a substantial reduction in due process hearings 
held. Over the 5-year period, the number of due process hearings held 
in New York declined from 1,600 to 1,052. In addition, according to the 
NASDSE study, most due process hearings were held in a few locations. 
Nearly 80 percent of all hearings were held in 5 states--California, 
Maryland, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania--and the District of 
Columbia.[Footnote 21] The rates of due process hearings per 10,000 
students in these states ranged from 3 in California to 24 in New York; 
in the District of Columbia the rate was 336 due process hearings per 
10,000. See figure 2 for the total numbers of due process hearings held 
in the 5 states and the District of Columbia compared with the rest of 
the nation over a 5-year period.

Figure 2: Numbers of Due Process Hearings Held in 5 States and the 
District of Columbia Compared to the Rest of the United States, 1996-
2000:

[See PDF for image]

[End of figure]

Using data from its nationwide sample survey of the 1998-99 school 
year, SEEP reported that the prevalence of dispute activity among 
school districts varied by certain demographic characteristics. For 
example, the percentage of urban school districts that reported having 
at least 1 due process case--request or hearing--for the year was 
significantly higher than either suburban or rural districts (an 
estimated 50 percent, 20 percent, and 9 percent, respectively). 
Similarly, large school districts reported significantly more due 
process cases, compared with smaller districts. However, when the study 
made adjustments for the number of students served by examining the 
rate of due process cases per 10,000 special education students, no 
statistically significant differences were found in rates for either 
urbanicity or size. SEEP also analyzed due process data by district 
income levels and found a significant difference--an estimated 52 
percent of the highest income school districts reported at least 1 due 
process case, 13 times the percentage of lowest income districts (4 
percent).[Footnote 22]

Rates of Mediations and State Complaints Were Also Low:

According to limited national data available from three studies, the 
rates of mediations and complaints per 10,000 students with 
disabilities were generally low, but somewhat higher than the rates of 
due process hearings. SLIIDEA reported that in the 1999-2000 school 
year more formal disputes between parents and schools were resolved 
through mediation than due process hearings.[Footnote 23] Based on 
survey results from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, this 
study reported that the median number of mediations for states was 4 
for every 10,000 students with disabilities. The study also reported 
that 87 percent of the school districts surveyed said they did not have 
any mediation cases in the 1999-2000 school year.

Two other studies also reported low numbers nationally of mediation 
cases and complaints. In May 2003, the SEEP study reported that 4,266 
mediation cases were held during the 1998-99 school year, from which we 
calculated a rate of about 7 per 10,000 students. In February 2003, a 
NASDSE study reported that 6,094 complaints were filed nationwide 
during the 2000 school year or 2000 calendar year.[Footnote 24] Similar 
results were found in the SEEP study, which reported that 6,360 state 
complaints were filed during the 1998-99 school year. Given that 
roughly 6 million students with disabilities were served in these 
school years, we calculated that about 10 complaints were filed for 
every 10,000 students with disabilities.[Footnote 25] SEEP's survey 
also revealed that an estimated 62 percent of districts reported having 
no cases involving complaints, due process hearings requested or held, 
or mediations during the school year. (See app. II for information on 
the levels of formal dispute resolution activity in the urban and rural 
school districts we visited.):

States We Visited Were Emphasizing Mediation, and Some Locations Used 
Additional Strategies:

In the 4 states in our review, and in Iowa, where we examined 
alternative dispute resolution strategies, officials told us they 
emphasized mediation in resolving disputes, and some locations had 
developed additional strategies for early resolution of disagreements 
between families and school districts. Officials saw mediation as a 
major resource for achieving agreements, strengthening relationships, 
resolving disputes more quickly, and reducing cost. The states we 
visited had implemented formal mediation by 1990 and, in varying 
degrees, exceeded minimum federal requirements by not tying it to a 
request for a due process hearing. In addition, 3 states we visited had 
established additional early dispute resolution strategies that were 
less formal and less adversarial.

States Encouraged the Use of Mediation to Resolve Disagreements:

All 4 of the states we visited encouraged mediation as the mechanism 
for resolving disputes between schools and parents. All 4 states 
reported that parents and school districts could request mediation at 
anytime for any issue related to the identification, IEP development 
and implementation, placement, or the free appropriate public education 
of a student; but the degree to which it was specifically offered and 
used varied. In 2 of the states we visited, California and 
Massachusetts, mediation was used more frequently in dispute resolution 
in fiscal year 2002 than complaints and due process hearings combined. 
Mediation was used less often than state complaint procedures in Ohio 
and Texas, but both states had taken steps to expand their mediation 
programs. Table 2 provides the numbers of mediation cases over a 3-year 
period compared with complaints and due process hearings in the 4 
states we visited.

Table 2: Dispute Resolution Activity in California, Massachusetts, 
Ohio, and Texas, Fiscal Years 2000-02:

Type of dispute resolution activity: 

California: 

Complaints; Fiscal Year: 2000: 
897; Fiscal Year: 2001: 1,191; Fiscal Year: 2002: 989.

Due process hearings; Fiscal Year: 
2000: 180; Fiscal Year: 2001: 242; Fiscal Year: 2002: 316.

Mediations; Fiscal Year: 2000: 
1,357; Fiscal Year: 2001: 1,511; Fiscal Year: 2002: 1,774.

Massachusetts: 

Complaints; Fiscal Year: 2000: 
300; Fiscal Year: 2001: 367; Fiscal Year: 2002: 524.

Due process hearings; Fiscal Year: 
2000: 39; Fiscal Year: 2001: 35; Fiscal Year: 2002: 33.

Mediations; Fiscal Year: 2000: 
636; Fiscal Year: 2001: 570; Fiscal Year: 2002: 565.

Ohio: 

Complaints; Fiscal Year: 2000: 
113; Fiscal Year: 2001: 137; Fiscal Year: 2002: 162.

Due process hearings; Fiscal Year: 
2000: 48; Fiscal Year: 2001: 29; Fiscal Year: 2002: 50.

Mediations; Fiscal Year: 2000: 92; 
Fiscal Year: 2001: 125; Fiscal Year: 2002: 91.

Texas; Fiscal Year: 2000: [Empty]; 
Fiscal Year: 2001: [Empty]; Fiscal Year: 2002: [Empty].

Complaints; Fiscal Year: 2000: 
158; Fiscal Year: 2001: 158; Fiscal Year: 2002: 152.

Due process hearings; Fiscal Year: 
2000: 71; Fiscal Year: 2001: 72; Fiscal Year: 2002: 97.

Mediations; Fiscal Year: 2000: 
147; Fiscal Year: 2001: 142; Fiscal Year: 2002: 139.

Source: State education agencies in Massachusetts, Ohio, and Texas; 
and, for California, we obtained complaint data from the SEA and due 
process hearing and mediation data from the Special Education Hearing 
Office, University of the Pacific.

[End of table]

While mediation was used less often in Ohio and Texas, SEA officials in 
both states expected the numbers of mediations to increase with recent 
changes in their mediation systems. In Ohio, a state education official 
told us and advocates confirmed that concerns about the objectivity of 
the mediation process in that state had made parents reluctant to use 
the state mediation system. As of June 2003, the Ohio SEA had 
contracted with four mediators and was in the process of adding four 
more across the state, and the state also expected to provide on-going 
evaluation of the mediation process. In Texas, state officials told us 
they expected an increased reliance on mediation because the SEA had 
expanded the use of voluntary mediation as a means to resolve disputes 
quickly by offering it to parties involved in state complaints, 
although states are not required to offer mediation in conjunction with 
state complaints.

Officials in all 4 states we visited said mediation offered benefits to 
all parties. Three of the 4 states reported that a high percentage of 
mediations resulted in agreements. The University of the Pacific 
reported that 93 percent of mediations in California resulted in 
agreements between families and schools during the 2001-02 fiscal year. 
Similarly, Massachusetts and Ohio reported success rates of 85 percent 
and 89 percent, respectively, for the same time period.[Footnote 26] 
Further, state education officials told us that mediation helped to 
foster communications between schools and parents and strengthen 
relationships. They also told us that mediations generally resolved 
disputes more quickly than state complaints or due process hearings. 
According to SEA officials in Ohio, for example, most mediations 
occurred within 2 weeks of the request. Texas state education officials 
also reported that mediations typically took place within 30 days upon 
receipt of the complaint. On the other hand, an administrator and some 
advocates told us that mediation agreements were not always implemented 
or enforced. However, no data were available on the extent to which 
this occurred.

Additionally, 3 of the states reported that mediations were less costly 
than due process hearings.[Footnote 27] The Texas SEA estimated that 
over the past decade it had saved about $50 million in attorney fees 
and related due process hearing expenses by using mediation rather than 
due process hearings. The state also reported that it spent an average 
of $1,000 for a mediator's services compared to $9,000 for a hearing 
officer's services.[Footnote 28] Similarly, the University of the 
Pacific reported in January 2003 that in California, the average cost 
to the state for mediation was $1,800, while the average cost of a due 
process hearing was $18,600. These data are consistent with SEEP's 
recent nationwide findings that of 4,312 districts reporting on cost-
effectiveness, 96.3 percent of the respondents perceived mediation to 
be more cost-effective than due process hearings.

All 4 of the states we visited had created additional opportunities for 
offering mediation as a means to resolve disputes.[Footnote 29] In 
Texas and Ohio, affected parties in a state complaint were immediately 
offered mediation to resolve their dispute.[Footnote 30] In 
Massachusetts, it was offered when parents and educators disagreed over 
a student's proposed IEP and failed to reach consensus. These cases 
were automatically referred to the Bureau of Special Education Appeals 
for resolution, where mediation and due process hearings were offered. 
In fiscal year 2002, Massachusetts state officials estimated that 
approximately 10 percent of these IEP-related disputes resulted in 
mediation; most of the remaining cases were resolved less formally. In 
California, parties can request "mediation only" without filing a 
request for due process hearings. In this option, California state law 
specifically excludes attorneys--for parents or school districts--from 
participating. Although state and local education officials and 
advocates viewed the option as a viable and less adversarial 
alternative for dispute resolution, it was used in California 208 
times, compared with 1,774 mediations tied to due process hearings in 
fiscal year 2002.

Some States and Localities Had Developed Additional Strategies for 
Early Dispute Resolution:

States and localities we visited also used a variety of additional 
dispute resolution strategies that showed potential to help resolve 
disputes early, but limited data were available to assess their 
effectiveness. Iowa developed and promoted several strategies as part 
of a continuum of options for resolving disputes between parents and 
schools. One of these options, the Parent-Educator Connection, was 
created to resolve differences between parents and schools at the 
earliest point. This effort was designed to provide each of the 15 area 
education agencies with staff who were trained in conflict resolution. 
These parent-educator coordinators attended meetings, including IEP 
meetings at either parent or educator request. According to an SEA 
official, parent-educator coordinators attended 896 meetings during the 
2001-02 fiscal year. Another option focused on increasing the 
availability of individuals with mediation skills to resolve more 
serious conflicts between parents and schools. These individuals, 
called resolution facilitators, were often regional education staff who 
were trained to assist families and schools in resolving their 
differences by discussing the problems and helping the parties work 
toward an acceptable agreement before it resulted in a more formalized 
dispute that involved the SEA. According to these state officials, 
another goal of the program is to teach others, including 
administrators, educators, and parents, about mediation, negotiation, 
and conflict resolution. In 2001, 238 participants, including 65 
parents, received training, but no data had been collected by the SEA 
about how often resolution facilitators were used or about the results 
of informal mediation processes that had occurred.

Iowa also promoted the availability of a somewhat more formal mediation 
called a pre-appeal conference that was not tied to a request for a due 
process hearing. According to state officials, the rationale for 
establishing the pre-appeal conference was to allow the parties another 
opportunity to resolve their dispute early before it became acrimonious 
and a formal request for a due process hearing was filed. Officials 
told us that the pre-appeal conference was conducted in a similar 
manner to mediation, that is, in connection with a due process hearing. 
In 2002, the pre-appeal conference was used five times more often by 
families and educators than mediation and usually resulted in an 
agreement. Iowa advocated and actively promoted the availability of the 
pre-appeal conference and resolution facilitators to educators and 
parents.

In Ohio, the state funded a pilot parent mentor program whereby parents 
of students with disabilities were hired to help school districts and 
other families by providing training, support, and information 
services. One of their most important duties was to attend IEP meetings 
and other meetings at parent or school staff request. While no data 
were available on the cost-effectiveness of this program in resolving 
disputes at the local level, the state increased funding for the 
program and expanded the number of parent mentors from 10 pilot sites 
in 1990 to 70 project sites that afford 96 parent mentors for 
approximately one-third of Ohio's school districts.[Footnote 31] During 
the 2001-02 school year, parent mentors attended 2,685 IEP meetings and 
had contact with 12,538 families of the 239,000 students with 
disabilities in Ohio.

California has an alternative dispute resolution grant program that 
provided limited funding in 2001 to 18 of the 119 regional education 
agencies within the state to establish strategies to prevent or address 
disagreements. Each region, typically consisting of more than one 
school district, selected several strategies and developed its own 
program for dispute resolution. One of these strategies, called 
facilitated IEPs, was used by 12 regions and involved one school 
district borrowing an expert trained in mediation from another school 
district to facilitate the IEP meeting. To become facilitators, staff 
participated in 4-day training programs that emphasized facilitation 
skills within an IEP process. The training was intended to provide 
facilitators with the tools to conduct IEP meetings in a way that 
enabled the team to (1) focus the IEP content and process on students' 
needs, (2) use a collaborative process, (3) build and improve 
relationships, and (4) reach consensus. An overall goal of this 
alternative grant program was to reduce the numbers of due process 
hearings requested in certain areas of the state. While there were no 
impact data for this program or any of the other strategies, 12 of the 
regions that participated showed an overall decrease of 42 percent in 
requests for due process hearings from 2001 to 2002.

State Notification Problems Were Generally Minor and Had Little Effect 
on Timeliness:

In general, officials in the school districts we visited told us they 
had few problems with responding to state complaint notifications. The 
problems they encountered had little impact on the timeliness of the 
complaint process; state and local education officials appeared to be 
working together to overcome them.

According to the local school district officials we interviewed, 
complaint notifications generally provided sufficient information to 
allow them to respond within the states' required time frames. Both the 
state and local officials told us the amount of time local school 
districts were given to respond to the notification letter ranged from 
3 to 10 days. To allow them to respond to complaints, the notification 
letter typically (1) identifies the student, (2) identifies the 
student's school, (3) describes the nature of the complaint, and (4) 
specifies the relevant documents needed for the state to resolve a 
complaint and conduct an independent on-site investigation, if 
determined necessary.

Los Angeles Unified School District officials said they experienced a 
few problems with notifications because on occasion, the state did not 
include the supporting documentation for the complaint, such as a copy 
of the relevant IEP or evaluation along with the notification letter. 
Also, these school district officials told us that the notification 
sometimes did not include the name of the school or the child's date of 
birth, which initially made it difficult to identify the student. While 
these problems may have resulted in several days' delay, Los Angeles 
Unified School District officials said that some of these 
administrative issues will be resolved once the district has 
implemented its Web based IEP system, which it expects to complete in 
January 2004. According to an SEA official, the state was generally 
flexible and allowed the school district additional time to provide the 
requested documents.

In addition, officials of the Austin (Texas) Independent School 
District and Hamilton (Ohio) Local School District told us the state 
notification included a summary of the parents' allegations. However, 
they were sometimes unable to discern the nature of the parents' 
complaint from this account. To better understand the nature of the 
parents' complaint, Austin school district officials formally requested 
a copy of the parent's signed letter from the SEA. According to SEA 
officials, Texas had recently begun to include a copy of the parents' 
letter as part of the notification.

Concluding Observations:

Overall, the numbers of formal disputes between parents and school 
districts were generally low compared to the 6.5 million students 
between 3 and 21 years old served during the 2001-02 school year, but 
the thousands of disputes that occur threaten relationships and can 
result in great expense. The concentration of due process hearings in a 
few localities suggests that many factors may well be at play, 
including local attitudes about conflict, when parents or others 
dispute a school district's decisions. The states we visited viewed 
mediation as a valuable tool for parents and schools to resolve many 
disputes before they become acrimonious. The fact that the states we 
visited were emphasizing mediation and made it more widely available 
than IDEA requires--along with other options for early dispute 
resolution--may hold promise for reducing contentious and expensive 
forms of dispute resolution, such as due process hearings.

Agency Comments:

We provided a copy of this report to Education for its review and 
comment. Agency comments are reprinted in appendix III. Education 
agreed with our findings and stated that the report would be of great 
interest and highly relevant to the present congressional consideration 
of IDEA. Education said that it will assess the administration of 
dispute resolution procedures in the six high incidence jurisdictions 
identified in our report through a combination of monitoring and 
technical assistance. Education also provided technical comments, which 
we incorporated as appropriate.

Copies of this report are being sent to the Secretary of Education, 
appropriate congressional committees, and interested parties. Copies 
will be made available to others upon request. The report is also 
available on GAO's Web site at http://www.gao.gov.

Please contact me on (202) 512-7215 if you have any questions about 
this report. Other GAO contacts and staff acknowledgments are listed in 
appendix IV.

Sincerely yours,

Marnie S. Shaul 

Director, Education, Workforce, and Income Security Issues:

Signed by Marnie S. Shaul: 

[End of section]

Appendix I: Scope and Methodology:

In conducting our review, we obtained and analyzed information from the 
Department of Education, state education agencies (SEA), local school 
districts, and the McGeorge School of Law at the University of the 
Pacific. We visited 5 states, and in 4 of these states we interviewed 
staff from SEAs and local education agencies (LEA), including one urban 
and one rural school district in each state--for a total of eight 
school districts. At the district level, we performed our fieldwork at 
the Los Angeles Unified and Salinas Union High School Districts in 
California, Boston Public and Southbridge School Districts in 
Massachusetts, Cleveland Municipal and Hamilton Local School Districts 
in Ohio, and Austin Independent and Goliad Independent School Districts 
in Texas.

In selecting the states for our fieldwork, we considered states that 
(1) varied in volume of formal dispute resolution activity, (2) used 
one-or two-tier due process hearing systems, (3) had developed 
alternative dispute resolution strategies, (4) were visited by the 
Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs over the 
past few years, (5) included large urban school districts, and (6) were 
geographically diverse. We met with SEA officials in Iowa because the 
state was identified by experts in the area for having innovative 
strategies in alternative dispute resolution. In addition, we met with 
representatives of other professional organizations, including the 
National Association of State Directors of Special Education and the 
Consortium for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education. We 
also interviewed members of parent resource and advocacy groups 
(federally funded and other nonprofits) in each of the states visited; 
these organizations employed parents of children with disabilities and 
we obtained their views.

To identify what kinds of issues resulted in formal disputes between 
parents and school districts, we interviewed state and local education 
officials, parent resource and advocacy groups, and obtained data 
during our site visits to California, Massachusetts, Ohio, and Texas. 
To determine how much formal dispute resolution activity occurred, we 
collected and reported data from each of the 4 states and reviewed and 
reported the results of four nationwide surveys, each affected by 
different data and research limitations:

* Dispute Resolution Procedures, Data Collection, and Caseloads Study. 
This study was conducted by the National Association of State Directors 
of Special Education (NASDSE) of state dispute resolution activities 
between February and April 1999. All 50 SEAs responded and provided 
some information on their state dispute resolution systems, including 
data on complaints, mediations, and due process hearings for the 1999-
2000 school year or 2000 calendar year. The study authors cautioned 
that the state data are variable and are gathered and recorded using 
different approaches. Also, to make the data more usable, when data 
were unavailable, the missing data were replaced by data from the 
previous year's experience or data were calculated and derived from the 
30 states with complete information.

* Due Process Hearings: 2001 Update. Annually, Project FORUM at NASDSE 
surveyed special education directors to obtain nationwide data on the 
numbers of due process hearings requested and held over a 10-year 
period (1991 through 2000). The most recent survey also obtained 
information on the due process hearing systems used in all states and 
the District of Columbia to determine whether they were one-or two-tier 
hearing systems. The study authors noted that because state data vary 
in the way data are collected and maintained, the data were reported as 
a comparison of annual incidence even though the specific year of 
collection does not cover the same months. Further, short-term changes 
in the reporting of these data might be due to factors other than a 
change in a state's policy. But, multiyear changes in national totals 
could indicate trends in the due process system.

* Study of State and Local Implementation and Impact of the Individuals 
with Disabilities Education Act (SLIIDEA). This study, funded by the 
Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), is collecting data over a 
5-year period by means of mailed surveys at the state, district, and 
school levels, and through case studies of the implementation of the 
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in selected school 
districts on selected topics. In January 2003, one report was issued 
from this study, Final Report on Selected Findings, and included data 
on due process hearings and mediations. This report provides data on 
dispute resolution activity obtained from state and district surveys 
that were administered during the 1999-2000 school year. The estimates 
of dispute activity in this study were based on a survey of school 
districts with a response rate of 31 percent. Abt Associates conducted 
a nonresponse survey with eight of the original survey items primarily 
by telephone to determine potential bias between survey respondents and 
nonrespondents. Because some differences were found, data from the 
nonresponse survey were used to adjust the estimates based on the 
originally interviewed districts. An assumption was made in this 
analysis that nonresponding districts are similar to responding 
districts in the way they would answer the survey items.

* What Are We Spending on Procedural Safeguards in Special Education, 
1999-2000? This series of reports is based on descriptive information 
derived from the Special Education Expenditure Project (SEEP), a 
national study funded by OSEP and conducted by the American Institutes 
for Research. This report provides estimates of school district 
expenditures on special education mediation, due process, and 
litigation activities for the 1999-2000 school year; the prevalence of 
dispute activity (state complaints, mediations, due process hearings, 
and litigations) for the 1998-99 school year; demographic 
characteristics of school districts with and without dispute activity; 
and other related information. Data were collected from a sample of 
school districts to generalize to all districts in the 50 states and 
the District of Columbia. However, no overall response rate was cited 
in this study. Therefore, the level of nonresponse and its effect on 
data quality are unknown from this survey. Because of the survey 
design, the SEEP data on due process hearings did not distinguish 
between due process hearings requested and due process hearings held. 
Also, the SEEP data may include dispute resolution activity in addition 
to the procedural safeguards under IDEA, such as those provided for by 
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, as well as other 
activities made available by states.

Inconsistencies in the way states define and collect data on dispute 
resolution activities could affect the validity of the estimates, as 
well as make between-state comparisons difficult. No national reporting 
system exists to identify and quantify the various causes of special 
education disputes or the prevalence of dispute resolution activity 
among the states. States have developed their own database systems that 
have a wide variety of categories and definitions of disputes with many 
different allowable entries. For example, in cases that involved the 
simultaneous filing of a state complaint and a request for mediation, 
some SEAs only record the procedure that was used to resolve the 
dispute while other states record both the filed complaint and request 
for mediation. As a result, the data reported in national studies as 
well as that reported from our site visits are of varying quality, 
resulting in inexact numbers of dispute resolution activity.

To determine what mechanisms (formal and informal) were used to resolve 
disagreements, we interviewed state education officials and local 
school district administrators and obtained and reviewed documents that 
described these mechanisms.

To determine whether LEAs had problems responding to dispute 
notifications from states, we interviewed special education 
administrators in each of the eight school districts we visited and 
reviewed SEA procedures and related documents.

We conducted our work between November 2002 and September 2003 in 
accordance with generally accepted government auditing standards.

[End of section]

Appendix II Levels of Dispute Resolution Activity in the Four Urban and 
Four Rural School Districts Visited :

The school districts we visited varied in their use of the dispute 
resolution mechanisms, and generally reflected the national trends in 
that complaints and mediation were used more often than due process 
hearings to resolve disputes between families and schools. Table 3 
summarizes the levels of formal dispute resolution activity over a 3-
year period in the eight school districts we visited in California, 
Massachusetts, Ohio, and Texas. 

Table 3: Dispute Resolution Activity in Urban and Rural School 
Districts over a 3-Year Period, Fiscal Years 2000-02:

School district: Los Angeles Unified, Calif; Geographic area: Urban; 
Number of students with disabilities[A] (2000-01): 73,936; Number of 
state complaints: 466; Number of due process hearings: 57; Number of 
mediations: 1,687; Total number of formal disputes: 2,210.

School district: Salinas Union High, Calif; Geographic area: Rural; 
Number of students with disabilities[A] (2000-01): 1,052; Number of 
state complaints: 3; Number of due process hearings: 1; Number of 
mediations: 9; Total number of formal disputes: 13.

School district: Boston Public, Mass; Geographic area: Urban; Number 
of students with disabilities[A] (2000-01): 12,290[B]; Number of state 
complaints: 62; Number of due process hearings: 25; Number of 
mediations: 62[C]; Total number of formal disputes: 149.

School district: Southbridge, Mass; Geographic area: Rural; Number of 
students with disabilities[A] (2000-01): 522[B]; Number of state 
complaints: 2; Number of due process hearings: 0; Number of mediations: 
9; Total number of formal disputes: 11.

School district: Cleveland Municipal, Ohio; Geographic area: Urban; 
Number of students with disabilities[A] (2000-01): 12,727; Number of 
state complaints: 24; Number of due process hearings: 1; Number of 
mediations: 7; Total number of formal disputes: 32.

School district: Hamilton Local, Ohio; Geographic area: Rural; Number 
of students with disabilities[A] (2000-01): 345; Number of state 
complaints: 2; Number of due process hearings: 0; Number of mediations: 
1; Total number of formal disputes: 3.

School district: Austin Independent, Tex; Geographic area: Urban; 
Number of students with disabilities[A] (2000-01): 9,509; Number of 
state complaints: 8; Number of due process hearings: 3; Number of 
mediations: 13; Total number of formal disputes: 24.

School district: Goliad Independent, Tex; Geographic area: Rural; 
Number of students with disabilities[A] (2000-01): 208; Number of state 
complaints: 0; Number of due process hearings: 3; Number of mediations: 
0; Total number of formal disputes: 3.

Source: SEAs in Massachusetts, Ohio, and Texas; and for California, we 
obtained complaint data from the SEA, and due process hearing and 
mediation data from the Special Education Hearing Office, University of 
the Pacific.

[A] Based on kindergarten through grade 12 enrollment figures except 
for Salinas Union High (grades 7 through12) and Boston Public (includes 
pre-kindergarten students).

[B] Estimates based on total enrollment and percentage of students in 
special education.

[C] The number of mediations for Boston Public Schools is incomplete. 
The state changed its data system during the 2000 fiscal year and could 
provide data for only part of the year.

[End of table]

[End of section]

Appendix III: Comments from the Department of Education:

UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION:

OFFICE OF SPECIAL EDUCATION AND REHABILITATIVE SERVICES:

THE ASSISTANT SECRETARY:

August 13, 2003:

Ms. Marnie S. Shaul:

Director, Education, Workforce, and Income Security Issues General 
Accounting Office:

441 G Street, NW Washington, D.C. 20548:

Dear Ms. Shaul,

Thank you for the opportunity to review the draft report entitled, 
"SPECIAL EDUCATION: Numbers of Formal Disputes Are Generally Low and 
States Are Using Mediation and Other Strategies to Resolve Conflicts." 
I am pleased to respond on behalf of the Department of Education. The 
subject of this study is an important one and highly relevant to the 
present Congressional consideration of the Individuals with 
Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). We believe the final report will be 
of great interest when it is issued.

The findings of the draft report are notable in several respects. Most 
importantly, your data document the remarkably low overall incidence of 
serious disputes over special education programming. Due process 
hearings are expensive for all parties, time-consuming, and are not 
undertaken lightly, so due process hearings are universally understood 
to be a marker of serious unresolved differences about a student's need 
for special education and related services or the nature or location of 
services. One study considered in your analysis indicates that, 
nationwide, over half of school districts reported that no due process 
hearings were either requested or held. Your draft report indicates 
that, nationwide, the number of due process hearings held each year 
declined from 3,555 in 1996 to 3,020 in 2000. The number of hearings 
held declined every year throughout this period. There has been within 
that period a marked year-by-year decrease in the percentage of due 
process hearings actually held compared to hearings initially 
requested. More hearings are initially requested than are held.

We agree that there are State-specific differences in the collection of 
data on dispute resolution. However, reporting on the number of due 
process hearings held is straightforward and uncomplicated and we 
believe your draft report gives an accurate overall impression of the 
relatively low incidence of serious problems. During the 2001-2002 
school year, approximately 6.5 million students received services under 
IDEA (Part B), so these data appear to provide little support for 
anecdotal contentions 
of widespread and systemic problems. However, as mentioned below, your 
draft report identified problems concentrated in a few jurisdictions.

The decreases over time in the number of due process hearings held and 
the percentages of due process hearings requested and held are, in our 
opinion, in large part attributable to the increased availability and 
effectiveness of alternative dispute resolution strategies, especially 
mediation. As your analysis recognizes, the 1997 IDEA reauthorization 
encouraged the use of alternative approaches to dispute resolution and 
such approaches appear to be effective and increasingly accepted. We 
believe that if alternative dispute resolution strategies are perceived 
and demonstrated to be fast, fair and effective in obtaining agreed-
upon changes in a student's educational services or setting, students, 
parents, and school administrators will all benefit. As you have noted, 
the potential cost savings are substantial. The rapid resolution of 
disputes allows educational services to be provided with less 
uncertainty and disruption and this is desirable.

We are concerned about the remarkable jurisdictional differences you 
have identified in dispute rates among States and in particular the 
extraordinarily high rate of disputes in the District of Columbia. Your 
draft report identified California, New York and the District of 
Columbia as being among six jurisdictions having high rates of due 
process hearings. The rate of due process hearings per 10,000 students 
was 3 hearings per 10,000 students in California compared to an 
extremely high rate of 336 hearings per 10,000 students in the District 
of Columbia. That rate was over ten 
times the rate in New York. In addition, Maryland was identified as 
having a high rate of due process hearings. We intend to assess the 
administration of dispute resolution procedures in the six high 
incidence jurisdictions identified in the draft report through a 
combination of monitoring and technical assistance.

As is customary, we are providing suggested technical and production 
edits separately. We believe it is important to describe the due 
process provisions of IDEA and methods of administration of the Federal 
requirements as clearly and accurately as possible. You intend to 
release the final report at an important stage of legislative 
deliberations on IDEA and it would be helpful to all parties involved 
in this process for the final report to provide precise and factual 
characterizations rather than summaries or paraphrases. We are 
available to discuss any of our suggested changes with your staff if 
this would be helpful to you.

Sincerely,

Signed for: 

Robert H. Pasternack, Ph.D.

Enclosure:

[End of section]

Appendix IV: GAO Contacts and Staff Acknowledgments:

GAO Contacts:

Deborah L. Edwards (202) 512-5416 Tim Hall (202) 512-7192:

Staff Acknowledgments:

The following people also made important contributions to this report: 
Ellen Soltow, Susan Bernstein, Luann Moy, Kris Braaten, Roger Thomas, 
and Richard Burkard.

FOOTNOTES

[1] Source of cost data: Congressional Research Service Report for 
Congress, Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA): Current 
Funding Trends, RS21447, updated March 3, 2003. 

[2] Parties that are not satisfied with a due process hearing decision 
may bring a civil action in federal or state court but such actions are 
uncommon and were not included in our review. In the 1998-99 school 
year, an estimated 301 civil actions were initiated nationwide.

[3] These studies covered various periods of time from 1991 to 2000. 
See app. I for a listing and brief discussion of these studies.

[4] Iowa was recommended to us because it was viewed as using 
innovative dispute resolution practices.

[5] IDEA contains four parts (A through D) and this report primarily 
focuses on part B of the legislation. Part B contains provisions 
relating to the education of children ages 3 through 21 and includes 
the funding formula, use of funds, provisions relating to evaluations, 
eligibility determinations, individualized education programs, 
educational placements, and detailed requirements for procedural 
safeguards. 

[6] Parents may also obtain an independent educational evaluation of 
their child at any time at their own expense. The results of this 
evaluation must be considered in any decision in providing a free 
appropriate public education for that child, and may also be presented, 
if needed, as evidence at a due process hearing.

[7] IDEA requires that an IEP team include (1) the child's parents; (2) 
at least one regular education teacher of the child, if the child is, 
or may be participating in the regular education environment; (3) at 
least one special education teacher, or if appropriate, at least one 
provider of the child's special education; (4) a representative of the 
public agency qualified to provide, or supervise, special education and 
who is knowledgeable about the general curriculum and the resources 
available from the public agency; (5) an individual who can interpret 
the instructional implications of educational results; (6) at the 
discretion of the parent or the agency, other individuals with 
knowledge or expertise about the child; and (7) the child, if 
appropriate. Public agencies include SEAs, LEAs, Departments of Mental 
Health and Welfare, state schools for children with deafness or 
children with blindness, and any other political subdivisions of the 
state that are responsible for providing education to children with 
disabilities.

[8] In the states and localities we visited, some educators and 
advocates alike provided a variety of reasons that parents may not take 
formal actions to resolve issues with schools. These reasons included 
the lack of information about how to file formal complaints, a 
perception that the available remedies were ineffective, and a parent's 
reluctance to have conflict with school officials.

[9] The procedural safeguards afforded parents include the right to 
written prior notice whenever the education agency proposes to initiate 
or change, or refuses to initiate or change, the identification, 
evaluation, or educational placement of the child, or the provision of 
a free appropriate public education to the child; the right to provide 
consent to an evaluation to determine whether the child has a 
disability as defined under the law before the evaluation is conducted; 
and the right to an impartial due process hearing when the parent has 
presented a complaint related to the identification, evaluation, or 
educational placement of the child or the provision of a free 
appropriate public education to the child.

[10] There are variations in how certain procedures may be carried out. 
For example, in some LEAs, parents may file complaints either to the 
school district or with the state. Also, SEAs varied in employing 
hearing officers and mediators; some SEAs contracted out for these 
positions and other states had a cadre of full-time employees in an 
administrative unit not involved in the education or care of the child.

[11] In cases where families prevail in due process hearings, they may 
be entitled to attorney's fees. In some states, the hearing officer can 
make the determination of reasonable attorney's fees and order the 
school district to pay. In other states, parents must seek attorney's 
fees in a district court.

[12] Eileen Ahearn, Due Process Hearings: 2001 Update (Project Forum, 
NASDSE), April 2002.

[13] OSEP plans to obtain consistent information, through performance 
reporting, from states. Part of this reporting system is expected to 
include data on numbers of complaints, due process hearings, and 
mediations. Initial state reports of this information are proposed to 
be due by March 31, 2004.

[14] OSEP also funded a 5-year national center on dispute resolution, 
the Consortium for Appropriate Dispute Resolution in Special Education 
(CADRE), for the purpose of providing information and assistance to 
state agencies on implementation of the mediation requirements under 
the 1997 amendments to IDEA. In addition, CADRE supports parents, 
educators, and administrators to benefit from the full continuum of 
dispute resolution options that can prevent and resolve conflicts. The 
national center works with its core partners, including NASDSE; the 
Academy for Educational Development/National Information Center for 
Children and Youth with Disabilities, and the Technical Assistance 
Alliance for Parent Centers (The Alliance). CADRE is a project of 
Direction Service, Inc., located in Eugene, Oregon.

[15] In the states we visited, SEA officials told us disagreements that 
involved potential technical violations of federal or state law or 
regulations were generally pursued through the state complaint 
procedures, while disagreements involving judgment such as student 
identification and educational placements were generally resolved 
through due process hearings or mediations. An OSEP memorandum, dated 
July 17, 2000, Subject: Complaint Resolution Procedures under Part B of 
the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (Part B), directs 
states to make their complaint procedures available for resolving any 
complaint, including (1) those that raise systemic issues and (2) 
individual child complaints.

[16] Similar state level data on mediations and complaints were 
unavailable.

[17] These totals do not include data from New York state, which were 
not reported to NASDSE.

[18] These totals do not include state level appeals in two-tier 
states. Over the same 5-year period (1996 through 2000), 1,355 hearings 
were held in states that offered this review process. The number of 
hearings declined from 288 to 254 (12 percent) over the last 3 years.

[19] In May 2003, SEEP reported that an estimated 6,763 due process 
cases were initiated during the 1998-99 school year. The number of due 
process hearings reported in this study was greater than that in 
NASDSE's report because the SEEP survey did not distinguish between due 
process hearings requested and due process hearings held but included 
both in their count of due process cases. Moreover, the data in SEEP 
may include dispute resolution activity in addition to the procedural 
safeguards under IDEA, such as those provided for by Section 504 of the 
Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which prohibits discrimination based on 
disability, as well as other activities made available by states. 
Consequently, the number of due process hearings in the SEEP report 
would be expected to be higher than in NASDSE's.

[20] SLIIDEA reported that the median number of due process hearings 
for states was 2.3 per 10,000 students with disabilities in the 1999-
2000 school year. 

[21] Two states received grants from Education that were used for 
programs related to dispute resolution, one of which focused on 
building dispute resolution skills in parents, educators, and other 
child-serving providers. In 2001, Pennsylvania received about $558,000 
to expand a pilot training program to provide stakeholders with the 
tools to resolve their disputes in a more timely and effective manner, 
thereby obviating the need for more formal means of dispute resolution. 
According to a state education official, as of May 2003, approximately 
150 people have received the 1-day training program. In 2002, New York 
state received $604,000 to use for the development and implementation 
of a Web based system that will allow educators and families access to 
information about dispute resolution activity. The state plans to have 
the information system operational by June 2004.

[22] NASDSE's study, Dispute Resolution Procedures, Data Collection, 
and Caseloads, also reported that a significant relationship existed 
between median household incomes and the number of disputes. Households 
with higher median incomes were more likely than households with lower 
median incomes to have filed a state complaint or requested mediation 
or a due process hearing.

[23] In the SLIIDEA report, the term parent refers to parent or 
guardian.

[24] Forty-nine states provided data on the number of complaints. In 
this study, it was reported that state agencies used different 
procedures for gathering and recording information on dispute 
resolution activity, consequently, there was a lack of consistency in 
the data provided by states. Also, two SEAs--Iowa and Maine--were able 
to track disputes across the complaint, mediation, and due process 
hearing systems to determine the number of families using more than one 
mechanism for the same issue. The lack of integrated database systems 
results in an unknown number of disputes being counted more than once.

[25] The margin of error for the calculated rate of 7 mediations per 
10,000 students is (+/-5 mediations per 10,000) at the 95 percent 
confidence level. The margin of error for the calculated rate of 10 
complaints per 10,000 students is (+/-4 complaints per 10,000) at the 
95 percent confidence level.

[26] Texas SEA officials reported that mediations resulted in an 
agreement in 65 percent of the cases in 2002.

[27] SEA officials in Massachusetts were unable to provide cost data 
for hearing officers and mediators. 

[28] These estimates do not include costs, such as attorney fees, paid 
by the LEA.

[29] In addition to providing mediation when a request for a due 
process hearing has been made, many states offer mediation on other 
occasions. In May 2003, NASDSE reported that based on a survey of all 
state special education directors, mediation was offered (1) anytime 
parents or school districts requested it in 43 states, (2) when the SEA 
learned of a problem even before a formal complaint had been filed in 
25 states, and (3) in connection with the filing of a state complaint 
in 20 states.

[30] In California, parties can also obtain mediation by filing a state 
complaint, but a state education official told us that this option was 
rarely used.

[31] According to an Ohio parent center official, 10 of these projects 
are funded by federal funds through IDEA.

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