Special Education:

Improved Performance Measures Could Enhance Oversight of Dispute Resolution

GAO-14-390: Published: Aug 25, 2014. Publicly Released: Sep 24, 2014.

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Jacqueline M. Nowicki
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What GAO Found

From 2004 through 2012, the number of due process hearings—a formal dispute resolution method and a key indicator of serious disputes between parents and school districts under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)— substantially decreased nationwide as a result of steep declines in New York, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia. Officials in these locations largely attributed these declines to greater use of mediation and resolution meetings—methods that IDEA requires states to implement. Despite the declines, officials in these locations said that higher rates of hearings persisted because of disputes over private school placements or special education services. GAO did not find noteworthy trends in the use of other IDEA dispute resolution methods, including state complaints, mediation, and resolution meetings. States and territories reported on GAO's survey that they used mediation, resolution meetings, and other methods they voluntarily implemented to facilitate early resolution of disputes and to avoid potentially adversarial due process hearings.

Due Process Hearings in New York, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and Other States and Territories, 2004-2012

Due Process Hearings in New York, Puerto Rico, the District of Columbia, and Other States and Territories, 2004-2012

States, territories, and other stakeholders generally reported on GAO's survey or in interviews that alternative methods are important to resolving disputes earlier. Some stakeholders cited the potential of these methods to improve communication and trust between parents and educators. Some state officials said that a lack of public awareness about the methods they have voluntarily implemented was a challenge to expanding their use, but they were addressing this with various kinds of outreach, such as disseminating information through parent organizations.

The Department of Education (Education) uses several measures to assess states' performance on dispute resolution but lacks complete information on timeliness and comparable data on parental involvement. Education requires all states to report the number of due process hearing decisions that were made within 45 days or were extended; however, it does not direct states to report the total amount of time that extensions add to due process hearing decisions. Similarly, Education collects data from states on parental involvement—a key to dispute prevention—but does not require consistent collection and reporting, so the data are not comparable nationwide. Leading performance measurement practices state that successful performance measures should be clearly stated and provide unambiguous information. Without more transparent timeliness data and comparable parental involvement data, Education cannot effectively target its oversight of states' dispute resolution activities.

Why GAO Did This Study

States receiving IDEA funds must ensure that a free appropriate public education is made available to all children with disabilities, and IDEA has long incorporated formal methods to resolve disputes between parents and school districts. The 2004 reauthorization of IDEA expanded the availability of alternative dispute resolution by broadening the use of voluntary mediation and requiring resolution meetings prior to due process hearings. GAO was asked to examine the use of dispute resolution methods since 2004. In this report GAO (1) examines recent trends in dispute resolution methods, (2) reports stakeholders' views on alternative methods, and (3) assesses Education's related performance measures for states. GAO analyzed federal dispute resolution data from 2004 to 2012, conducted a national survey, compared Education's performance measures to leading practices, and interviewed Education officials and stakeholders selected for their knowledge of dispute resolution.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends that Education improve measures for overseeing states' dispute resolution performance, including more transparent data on due process hearing decisions and comparable parental involvement data. Education neither agreed nor disagreed with the recommendations and proposed alternative actions. GAO does not believe these proposals will address the weaknesses in Education's performance measures and continues to believe the recommendations remain valid.

For more information, contact Jacqueline M. Nowicki at (617) 788-0580 or nowickij@gao.gov.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: Education stated that collecting data from all states and territories on the amount of time that extensions add to hearing timelines would not necessarily improve its capacity to ensure that states and territories are properly implementing IDEA's dispute resolution procedures. Instead, Education proposed that it conduct follow up monitoring with any state that reports 10 or more fully adjudicated hearings in a given year where at least 75 percent of the decisions are issued with extended timelines. While this approach might be useful for Education's targeting of monitoring and assistance to states--particularly if monitoring includes collecting information about the duration of extensions, why parties request extensions and the effects of extended timelines on children's education--we believe this proposal alone will not correct the potentially misleading picture its timeliness measure creates regarding the amount of time that hearing decisions actually take. Some stakeholders noted that extensions could cause some children not to receive appropriate educational services in a timely manner. Thus, we see advantages in addressing the core weakness of its measure by collecting this information. Further, Education noted that only 12 states and territories had 10 or more fully adjudicated hearings in 2011-12 and stated that it is not appropriate or efficient to burden all states in collecting these data. However, requiring states with fewer hearings to report this information is unlikely to create significant administrative burden for them, as they would be providing information on a small number of decisions. Without reliable performance information, the public lacks a clear picture of the time required to reach due process hearing decisions and the potential impact on affected children. In FY15, OSERS identified the states it will monitor. Work on developing the monitoring protocol is in process.

    Recommendation: Based on GAO's review, the Secretary of Education should direct the Office of Special Education Programs to increase transparency regarding the timeliness of due process hearing decisions for Congress and better target its monitoring and technical assistance to states, revise its performance measure to collect information from states on the amount of time that extensions add to due process hearing decisions.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: Education stated it does not believe there is a need to improve the comparability of states' parental involvement data. More specifically, Education said that these data are designed to measure state performance against targets that each state sets, based on state-specific needs and circumstances. The agency said it would work with states through its technical assistance centers to help build their capacity to collect high quality data. We commend Education's proposal to assist states in this way; however, its approach will continue to require states to report parental involvement data that Education cannot use to assist with oversight and manage for results related to dispute resolution. For example, absent comparable performance information across states, Education could not monitor states with weak performance on parental involvement or identify and assist states in sharing promising parental involvement practices that may help prevent disputes from developing. One approach Education could consider to improve the comparability of parental involvement data would be to establish and require that states follow standard data collection and analysis procedures in reporting the existing measure. Education stated that standardizing the collection of parental involvement data among states would result in increased administrative burden on some states. However, Education's former national technical assistance center on parental involvement suggested that consistent data collection may, in fact, decrease administrative burden because states would not need to develop their own approaches. Until Education collects data that it can use to effectively manage this effort, it will likely be limited in its ability to enhance collaboration between parents and educators, which facilitates resolving disputes earlier through less formal and costly means. In FY15, ED reported that the IDEA Data Center, in relation to the parent involvement portion of the audit, has continued review of APR indicator B8 to collect information related to data collection methods, results, and improvement activities for the indicator summary for OSEP. It also began review of existing sources for information on how parent data are collected and best practices/ exemplars that are publicly available. We commend Education for taking these initial steps but further action is needed to improve the comparability of parental involvement data across states and provide Education with reliable information to assess states? performance on this IDEA indicator.

    Recommendation: Based on GAO's review, the Secretary of Education should direct the Office of Special Education Programs to assist its oversight of dispute resolution, take steps to improve the comparability of parental involvement data while minimizing the burden to states, and use the data for better management decision making. Steps to consider could include establishing and requiring that states follow standard data collection and analysis procedures.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education


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