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NEW JERSEY: State takes too long to resolve "special education disputes"

May 28, 2019, Philadelphia WHYY: Feds order N.J. to find better ways to resolve special education disputes https://whyy.org/articles/feds-oder-nj-to-come-up-with-better-way-to-resolve-special-education-disputes/ New Jersey’s judicial system for resolving special education disputes has itself been long in a dispute over arguments that it takes too long, costs too much, is biased toward districts or is biased toward families. Now the federal Department of Education has entered the debate, this month ordering the state to come up with a better due-process system within three months. It said the current process involving the Office of Administrative Law has left too many cases unresolved for too long. The Murphy administration’s response, for now, is to pilot a system outside the courts altogether, setting up a team of quasi-judicial hearing officers to hear and decide disputes. The state Department of Education released the outlines of the plan on Friday after NJ Spotlight inquired about the federal order. Separately, Senate President Steve Sweeney last week proposed as part of his Path to Progress legislation the hiring of additional administrative law judges to specifically hear special-education cases. … Lots of disputes in N.J. “The state has admitted this is a problem for a long time, and there have been steps taken with mixed success,” said Diana Autin, co-director of the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network. … New Jersey is one of the country’s leaders for the number of special-education disputes that go to due process each year, typically seeking to resolve differences in critical decisions about where a child is placed for schooling or the specific services to which he or she is entitled. The case count varies by source, but the state says the number of complaints filed with the department has risen from 1,477 in 2014 to 1,811 last year. Most of those are resolved or dismissed before final adjudication, according to federal data, but whatever the result, the path to resolution is a long and fraught one before administrative law judges who have a full docket as it is. … Under federal and state law, cases must be resolved within 45 days, but the feds found the state had failed to properly monitor for such compliance and even contributed to the delays with its loose rules for how those days are counted or how adjournments are allowed. … New ‘independent hearing officers’ In a lengthy response to NJ Spotlight’s inquiry last week, the Murphy administration said it had been closely monitoring and discussing the issue for close to a year and meeting with stakeholders on ways to improve the process. … The education bills in the package lean heavily toward reducing the high and unpredictable costs of special education, especially for those students with the greatest needs. One bill would move to increase the state’s share in paying for students where the costs exceed $55,000.