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Effects of Spec.-Ed. Law Hard To Gauge, Study Says

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Washington--A General Accounting Office study has failed to reach firm conclusions regarding the impact of a controversial law enabling parents who win special-education disputes with school districts to collect legal fees.

"There does seem to be a move toward informal resolution of complaints," said William A. DeSarno, gao assignment manager for the study. But drawing broader conclusions was difficult, he said, because of "the scarcity of data being collected by the state education agencies."

The study, released last month, found increases in the number of administrative hearings being scheduled to resolve special-education disputes. But that trend, it said, began before the enactment of the Handicapped Children's Protection Act of 1986, and therefore cannot be clearly linked to the law.

The study was authorized by the 1986 act and represents the first national collection of data related to special-education hearings.

It addresses concerns, expressed by opponents of the law, that litigation in the special-education field will increase as a result of the act's provision authorizing courts to award reasonable attorney's fees to parents of handicapped children who prevail over school districts in "actions or proceedings."

The g.a.o. surveyed directors of the offices responsible for special education in 50 states and the District of Columbia, collecting data from the fiscal years 1984 through 1988.

The resulting study found that the number of scheduled administrative hearings increased by 29 percent between fiscal years 1984 and 1989. But the percentage of hearings that resulted in administrative decisions dropped from 63 percent in 1984 to 51 percent in 1988, indicating, according to the authors, that more cases are being resolved informally.

Moreover, the study found, more than half of the increase in scheduled hearings occurred before passage of the 1986 act.

Among other findings were that:

Parental use of lawyers increased during the five-year period. Parents had lawyers in 54 percent of administrative hearings resulting in decisions in 1988, compared with only 41 percent in 1984.

Most states had no data on the amount of legal fees awarded, making it difficult to gauge the monetary impact of the 1986 act.

Educational-placement issues were the most frequent type of complaint considered in both administrative hearings and civil cases, accounting for 38 percent of all disputes. Parents' success rates varied with the kind of disagreement they had with districts.

Overall, parents prevailed in about 43 percent of all administrative and court cases between 1984 and 1988.

Copies of "Special Education: The Attorney Fees Provision of P.L. 99-372," can be obtained from the gao by calling (202) 275-6241.--ps

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