Special Education:

Improved Timeliness and Better Use of Enforcement Actions Could Strengthen Education's Monitoring System

GAO-04-879: Published: Sep 9, 2004. Publicly Released: Oct 12, 2004.

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The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) ensures the education of the nation's disabled children. As a condition of receiving IDEA funds, states must provide educational and related services that facilitate learning to students with disabilities based on their individual needs. The Department of Education (Education) is responsible for ensuring state compliance with the law. In recent years, questions have been raised about Education's oversight of IDEA. GAO agreed to determine how Education monitors state compliance with IDEA for children aged 3-21, the extent and nature of noncompliance found, and how Education has ensured that noncompliance is resolved once identified. GAO analyzed Education monitoring documents, interviewed state and federal officials, and visited 5 state special education offices.

To monitor compliance with IDEA provisions that affect children aged 3-21, Education annually reviews special education data submitted by all states and uses a risk-based approach to identify those states in need of further inspection. This monitoring system relies upon collaboration with states, as each state is responsible for assessing and reporting its performance on the provision of special education services. However, some of the data used by Education, such as information about how parents are included in their children's education and students' experiences after they leave school, are weak in that they are not uniformly measured or are difficult for states to collect. In states Education visited for further inspection from 1997-2002, the department identified roughly equal amounts of noncompliance for failing to adequately provide services to students as noncompliance for not adhering to IDEA's procedural regulations, according to GAO analysis. Education found a total of 253 compliance failures in 30 of the 31 states visited during this period, with an average of approximately 8 across the 30 states. GAO found 52 percent of compliance failures to be directly related to providing student services, for instance counseling and speech therapy. The remaining 48 percent involved a failure to meet certain IDEA procedural requirements. Once deficiencies were identified, Education has sought resolution by providing states with technical assistance and requiring them to develop corrective action plans that would ensure compliance within 1 year. However, GAO found that most cases of noncompliance had remained open for 2 to 7 years before closure, and some cases still remain open. GAO's examination of Education documents showed that a considerable amount of time elapsed in each phase of the correction process, including Education's issuance of noncompliance findings and approval of correction plans. On occasion, Education has also made use of sanctions to address longstanding issues with noncompliance, but in these cases, too, resolution has been protracted. States expressed concerns about the standard 1-year timeframe Education imposes for correction, and Education officials acknowledged that it is sometimes not feasible for states to remedy noncompliance and demonstrate effectiveness in that length of time.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Education provided guidance to states in three areas through the Office of Special Education and Program's Technical Assistance and Dissemination Centers and at the National Accountability Conference and via subsequent teleconferences. Specifically, Education developed a survey to help states measure parental involvement and will provide states with support in the analysis and reporting of data from this survey. Additionally, Education created the Center on Secondary, Transition and Postsecondary School Outcomes for Students with Disabilities to help states implement and improve data systems to measure outcomes for students with disabilities. Finally, Education provided guidance to states regarding early childhood transitions by meeting with states to help them develop outcome measurement systems.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Education should develop and provide states with additional guidance for collecting and reporting three measures that Education considers key to positive outcomes for students with disabilities: early childhood transitions, post-secondary transitions, and parental involvement.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Education instituted an improved process for managing and tracking the various phases of the monitoring process, which includes the creation of a database to facilitate this tracking. Education has also shortened its reporting time for findings of noncompliance.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Education should expedite the resolution of noncompliance by improving response times throughout the monitoring process, particularly in reporting noncompliance findings to states, and track changes in response times under the new monitoring process.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In 2005, Education stated that changes made to its new Continuous Improvement and Focused Monitoring System (CIFMS) will lead to more timely correction of noncompliance and enable states to meet imposed deadlines. The agency will give states a reasonable amount of time beyond the one year when necessary to demonstrate the effectiveness of these changes. Ultimately, if states cannot demonstrate compliance, the OSERS Assistant Secretary will consider enforcement. As of June 2008, Education reported that it collects information annually from states regarding the timely correction of noncompliance. In the most recent Annual Performance Reports submitted on Feb 1, 2008, the majority of states were above 95% timely correction of noncompliance or showed improvement from 2007 (~45 States and entities). Under the IDEA 2004 amendments, this is the first year of enforcement and several states will be subject to enforcement related to timely correction of noncompliance. Determination letters from 2007 are available on Education's website, and the 2008 letters will be posted shortly after they are issued.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Education should impose firm and realistic deadlines for states to remedy findings of noncompliance.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: According to Education, the IDEA 2004 amendments require the Secretary to take enforcement action when any state is designated as "Needs Intervention" for 3 consecutive years. Requiring a compliance agreement is one of the enforcement mechanisms available under the needs intervention determination. This year (2008) is the second year of determinations. As a result, no state has been designated needs intervention for 3 consecutive years. A few states will be designated needs intervention for a second consecutive year in 2008. For states that cannot demonstrate compliance, the OSERS Assistant Secretary considers enforcement.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Education should when correction of noncompliance is expected to take more than 1 year, make greater use of Education's authority to initiate compliance agreement proceedings rather than imposing special conditions on grants.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education


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