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Parents Report Obstacles in Filing Special Education Complaints, Watchdog Says

By Andrew Ujifusa — December 04, 2019 3 min read
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A new federal watchdog report about concerns and disputes over special education services says that parents often have a hard time initiating complaints—but also that these barriers don’t affect all parents in the same way.

“IDEA Dispute Resolution Activity in Selected States Varied Based on School Districts’ Characteristics” looked at complaints in five states over services provided to students under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. The report from the Government Accountability Office found that in the five states studied, wealthier districts, as well as those with relatively few students of color, were more likely to have activity designed to settle disputes around special education services.

Here’s a key quote from the GAO about this disparity in IDEA dispute resolution :

A greater proportion of very high-income school districts had dispute resolution activity as well as higher rates of dispute activity than very low-income districts in most of the five states GAO reviewed. GAO also found that in most of these states, a smaller proportion of predominately Black and/or Hispanic districts had dispute resolution activity compared to districts with fewer minority students.

However, the report goes on to say that, in terms of the frequency of these complaints in different kinds of districts, the GAO reports that due process complaints and state complaints occurred at a higher rate in districts that predominantly educate students of color, at least in the five states studied.

And here are the disparities between relatively wealthy and poor districts in visual form, based on three categories of action parents can take regarding services under IDEA:

Here’s a similar breakdown by race:

What about those barriers we mentioned earlier? Broadly speaking, the GAO says parents often report feeling there’s a power imbalance, in which the district can bring a relatively large share of resources to bear to any dispute or mediation, while parents often aren’t in a position to match the money and time it can take to see these matters through. In rural and smaller communities, the report also notes, parents can shy away from conflict over these issues because it’s easy for them to accidentally run into teachers, administrators, and others potentially involved in the dispute. And crucially, many parents may have no other options if they decide that fighting over special education services turns out not to be worth it.

Other potential barriers that may affect some families more than others based on their socioeconomic or cultural status:

  • “Language barriers.”
  • “Difficulty obtaining time off from work.”
  • “Transportation, or internet access that could affect their use of IDEA dispute resolution and their ability to take advantage of resources, such as IDEA dispute resolution training, workshops, and online information.”

The five states studied in the GAO report were Massachusetts, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, and Pennsylvania for the 2016-17 school year. Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the committee chairman and ranking member of the House and Senate education committees, respectively, requested the GAO to report on the issue.

“The data clearly show that the civil rights protections provided under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) are not equally accessible to all students,” Scott said in a statement reacting to the report, adding that he hoped it would start an “overdue conversation” about barriers to what families are entitled to under federal law. And Murray said the report underscores the need to identify “what’s preventing parents who are low income or of color from using resources that exist to help parents advocate for their kid and then fixing those problems.”

These sorts of disparities have been the subject of scrutiny for awhile. In 2012 for the Atlantic, Megan McArdle wrote about her struggles with New York City schools over special education services, and the advantages parents have if they have wealth. “Those that do not either have to move or make do with whatever the system offers, which is often far, far below what is necessary,” McCardle wrote.

The report notes that in the 2016-17 school year, 35,142 mediation requests, due process complaints filed, and state complaints filed nationwide.

Read the full GAO report.