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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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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.


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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Education 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.
Closed – Implemented
In April 2017, Education reported that it had developed and implemented a plan to monitor states with 10 or more fully adjudicated hearings in a given year where at least 75 percent of the decisions are issued with extended timelines. Specifically, agency officials provided documentation that they were monitoring 6 states meeting these criteria and would also provide technical assistance to states, as appropriate, to facilitate more timely resolution of due process disputes. In February 2018, Education provided us with documentation that it had revised and updated its publically available information on the timeliness of due process hearing decisions, which includes the percentage of decisions within extended timelines by state. Education's changes enhance the transparency of information it collects and publically reports on this IDEA performance measure.
Department of Education 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.
Closed – Not Implemented
In FY15, Education reported that the IDEA Data Center continued to review its parental involvement indicator to collect information on data collection methods, results, and improvement activities. It also began reviewing existing sources for information on how parent data are collected and best practices. In 2017, Education said it would direct Parent Technical Assistance Centers and other Education-funded centers to work together to develop and disseminate materials to help states analyze and use parental involvement data to improve the provision of special education services. However, it is unclear how it would improve the comparability of parental involvement data across states and allow the agency to accurately assess states' performance on this IDEA indicator. In February 2018, Education reported efforts to improve the quality of parental involvement data it requires states to collect. However, Education acknowledged that these actions are not likely to improve its ability to assess and compare states' performance on parental involvement under IDEA primarily because data collection methodologies vary across states and produce data that are not generally comparable. As we reported in 2014, without comparable data across states, Education lacks important performance information on parental involvement under IDEA, which limits its ability to oversee states' dispute resolution activities, such as monitoring and assisting states with low performance on parental involvement in relation to other states. In July 2018, Education reported efforts to provide technical assistance to improve the reliability and utility of data from state surveys. While these efforts may improve individual states' ability to compare survey results across districts, Education is unable to use the surveys to compare state performance and support management decision making. Education cited the lack of a specific requirement in IDEA for reporting parental involvement data and noted that it does not view the State Annual Performance Report as a data collection. As of February 2020, Education's efforts continue to focus primarily on improving state parental involvement data quality: they do not address data comparability across states. The agency cannot use the data it requires states to collect to compare state performance on its IDEA parental involvement indicator.

Full Report

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Alternative dispute resolutionChildren with disabilitiesData collectionDispute settlementsEducational facilitiesFederal courtsParentsPerformance measuresRight to due processSchool districtsSpecial educationSurveysBest practicesGovernment agency oversightTransparency