Fewer special education disputes between parents and school districts are escalating to due process hearings, a new government report finds.

The number of due process hearings nationwide declined from over 7,000 during the 2004-2005 school year to 2,262 by the 2011-2012 academic year, according to a review released Wednesday from the Government Accountability Office.

The shift was largely due to “steep declines” in New York, Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C. — locations which accounted for over 80 percent of the nation’s hearings — the report indicated.

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Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, students have the right to a free appropriate public education. When parents and schools disagree over whether a student has been properly served, they can file a due process complaint notice. At that juncture, the dispute may be worked out via a resolution meeting or mediation or the parties may proceed to a formal due process hearing.

For the investigation, the GAO analyzed federal education data and surveyed special education directors in each state and territory.

Disputes often centered on whether or not a child should be placed in a private school or focused on disagreements around related services like physical therapy or a classroom accommodation, state officials told GAO investigators.

The reduction in hearings was due at least in part to efforts to rely more on mediation and resolution meetings rather than allow disputes to reach the level of due process hearings, the GAO found.

Nonetheless, the report noted that a lower number of hearings does not necessarily mean there are fewer issues with the delivery of special education services.

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