By:  Naaz Modan
Source: Education Dive

GAO: Low-income and minority students face barriers resolving disputes over special ed services

Dive Brief:

  • Among families of students with disabilities, those with lower incomes and who have children of color are less likely than their affluent and white counterparts to access their legal rights under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, according to a report released Tuesday by the Government Accountability Office.
  • Districts serving a higher percentage of students of color were the least likely to be involved in resolving disputes concerning how to meet a child's educational needs. 
  • Challenges parents face while leveraging IDEA's dispute resolution options include a lack of adequate legal representation, the inability of parents to take time off from work, fear of retaliation by school districts against parents (such as denial of services or alerting immigration authorities), language barriers and inconsistent access to information about students' rights.

Dive Insight:

According to the report, many parents "feel they are at a disadvantage" when in conflict with school districts because of "an imbalance of power" and, as a result, may be reluctant to engage in dispute resolution. Stakeholders also pointed out that in rural areas, parents might hesitate to disagree with school authorities out of concern for privacy in their close-knit communities or because families have limited alternative education options nearby. 

While the report provides no guidance or recommendations for the U.S. Department of Education to remedy these and other barriers, it does mention districts can provide a list of free and low-cost attorneys to parents. The report also highlights that in order to receive IDEA funds, states must ensure school districts notify parents of their right to initiate dispute resolution along with other rights afforded under IDEA. 

Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia), chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor and one of the two congressmen to request the report, called it a "wake-up call" for school districts. "The data clearly show that the civil rights protections provided under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act are not equally accessible to all students,” Scott said in a press release.

Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington) said "we need to look carefully" at barriers preventing parents who are low-income or of color from advocating for their children "and then fix those problems." 

Increasingly, educators and advocates for families are working to make special education services less "one-sided." Educator training, communication with families, and having neutral parties present during meetings can help alleviate stress parents associate with the process.

Recently, the U.S. Department of Labor also made it easier for parents to plan education services for their children with special needs by ruling they can use the Family and Medical Leave Act to attend IEP meetings. 

2017 study exploring how parents view the experience of collaborating with educators to support their children with disabilities notes parents "shared many concerns about collaborating with educators," including fears and anxieties resulting from a lack of communication and trust, as well as negative perceptions of disabilities.

The same study also found positive experiences between parents and educators were more likely to occur when educators treated parents "like partners," stressed the child's strengths, explained ideas and policies clearly, and were flexible and willing to try new things.