Our review of the California Department of Education's (Education) oversight of the special education hearings and mediations process revealed that:
About three years ago, during fiscal year 2005-06, the Office of Administrative Hearings (Administrative Hearings) in the Department of General Services assumed responsibility for hearings and mediations related to the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Until December 2005, the University of the Pacific's McGeorge School of Law (McGeorge) administered these cases under a series of contracts with the California Department of Education (Education). Our limited comparison of selected performance measures found that the average costs per case closed have increased since Administrative Hearings took over the hearings and mediations process. On the other hand, the average time required to complete the process has decreased, while the number of cases closed before administrative law judges (administrative judges) issue hearing decisions has not changed significantly. In addition, Education has established standards that Administrative Hearings should follow when managing the hearings and mediations process. We also observed that in general, Education oversees Administrative Hearings' execution of its interagency agreement appropriately; however, Education could improve its oversight in a few areas to ensure that Administrative Hearings is meeting Education's established standards.
The U.S. Congress first passed the IDEA to ensure that all children with special needs receive a "free appropriate public education" that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet each child's unique needs. IDEA contains certain procedural safeguards, including those giving school districts1 and parents the opportunity to present complaints about any matter related to a disabled student's education. Under certain conditions and upon presentation of a complaint, a parent, guardian, or school district is entitled to a due process hearing before an impartial hearing officer.
State law requires Education to enter into an interagency agreement with another state agency or to contract with a nonprofit entity to conduct mediation conferences and due process hearings for special education cases. Between 1989 and December 31, 2005, Education contracted with McGeorge to conduct and administer due process hearings and mediations in California. Toward the end of its last two contracts with McGeorge, Education entered into a three year interagency agreement with Administrative Hearings, which took over the management of the due process hearings as of June 1, 2005, and the mediations as of January 1, 2006.
During the course of our audit, we compared various facets of McGeorge's and Administrative Hearings' management of hearings and mediations related to special education. When we compared the costs incurred by McGeorge to conduct hearings and mediations to the costs incurred by Administrative Hearings, we found that the average cost per case closed had increased by 14 percent since Administrative Hearings began managing the hearings and mediations process. Specifically, the average cost per case under the McGeorge contract was $2,867; under the Administrative Hearings interagency agreement, the average cost per case was $3,272.
In addition to reviewing costs, we compared other factors, such as the average time that McGeorge and Administrative Hearings took to complete the hearings and mediations process and the number of cases closed before administrative judges issued hearing decisions. For example, we found that the average time McGeorge took to close cases was 185 days, whereas Administrative Hearings took an average of 118 days to close cases. When we compared the number of cases closed before administrative judges issued hearing decisions, we found only minimal differences between McGeorge and Administrative Hearings. We also found, when reviewing the outcomes of hearing decisions issued by McGeorge and Administrative Hearings over the last six years, McGeorge's data show that during the first two years, it issued decisions in favor of students more often than did Administrative Hearings. However, by fiscal year 2004-05 McGeorge's decisions favoring students had decreased to a level that more closely matches the data for all three years that Administrative Hearings has overseen the process. Further, for the six years covered in our review, we could not determine the total number and cost of hearing decisions that students or school districts appealed to higher courts because neither Education nor any other entity consistently or completely tracks this information, nor do laws require them to do so.
Our review also found that Education has established standards for Administrative Hearings to follow when it manages the hearings and mediations process and that in general, Education appropriately oversees Administrative Hearings' execution of its interagency agreement through a number of means. Nonetheless, Education could improve its oversight in a couple of areas to ensure that Administrative Hearings always meets the standards. More specifically, our review of one of Administrative Hearings' quarterly reports for each fiscal year between 2005-06 and 2007-08 found that it had not consistently included in these reports 10 items that the interagency agreement requires. By not ensuring that Administrative Hearings is consistently including all required information in its quarterly reports, Education is unable to review the information as part of its oversight activities, and it is not ensuring that Administrative Hearings complies with the reporting requirements of its interagency agreement and state law.
According to Education, it was aware that Administrative Hearings was not including all the required information in its quarterly reports, and we found some evidence that staff from Education and Administrative Hearings discussed this issue during monthly meetings involving both agencies. In September 2008 the presiding administrative judge for Administrative Hearings indicated that Administrative Hearings has modified the database to include the missing information, beginning with the first quarterly report for fiscal year 2008-09. However, when we later reviewed its first quarterly report, we found that Administrative Hearings was still missing one of the 10 items. It was not until we informed Administrative Hearings that the quarterly report was still missing one item that it amended the quarterly report to include all the required items on November 13, 2008.
Our review of Administrative Hearings' new database—Practice Manager—found that the data were inaccurate or missing in certain fields. Specifically, our review of a sample of 29 closed cases found that the reason for closure field was inaccurate for one and missing for another. Additionally, for three cases, one of the following fields were inaccurate: closed within the legally required time frame, case closed date, and case opened date. According to Administrative Hearings, it uses these fields to compile certain data that it includes in the quarterly reports it submits to Education. When Administrative Hearings does not ensure that the data its staff enter into these fields are accurate and complete, it cannot ensure that it is accurately reporting all required data to Education in accordance with the law and the interagency agreement, and Education cannot ensure that it is reporting accurate information to the federal government.
Additionally, Education has not taken steps to verify that Administrative Hearings is ensuring that its administrative judges receive all the training required by state law and the interagency agreement. Administrative Hearings has reported to Education that its administrative judges have participated in the required training. However, when we selected 15 administrative judges and attempted to verify that they had taken two classes listed in Administrative Hearings' report, we found that Administrative Hearings could not always demonstrate that all 15 had in fact taken the two courses.
Finally, our audit revealed that Administrative Hearings has not always issued hearing decisions within the legally required time frame. For example, Administrative Hearings reported that it issued only 29 percent and 57 percent of its decisions on time in the third and fourth quarters of fiscal year 2005-06, respectively, and it issued on time decisions 72 percent of the time in the first quarter of fiscal year 2006-07. The types of noncompliance related to timeliness of decisions could potentially lead to sanctions by the federal government and affect special education funding for the State. Our review found that Education was aware of this issue and that it has been actively monitoring the timeliness of Administrative Hearings' decisions to promote improvement.
To ensure that Administrative Hearings complies with state and federal laws, as well as with the specifications in its interagency agreement, Education, in its oversight role, should do the following:
Education indicated that it is continuing to work with Administrative Hearings to address two of our recommendations. In addition, Education stated that it plans to conduct periodic reviews of training records to address the third recommendation. Administrative Hearings also agreed to take appropriate actions to address the areas for improvement identified in the report related to its operations.
1 The federal IDEA refers to "local educational agencies," which, by definition, include school districts and county offices of education. However, because the majority of complaints involve school districts, we use school districts in place of local educational agencies throughout the report.