Governor Must Address System Breakdown
New Jersey Special Education Practitioners (NJSEP) has sent a report to Governor Phil Murphy analyzing the State’s unconscionable delays in completing hearings in disputes over special education services for children with disabilities. Despite a 45-day time limit for those hearings established by federal and state law, NJSEP’s analysis revealed it takes, on average, more than ten months for parents and school districts to obtain decisions in non-emergent, special education cases.
NJSEP is an association of approximately 100 attorneys and advocates who represent parents and students with disabilities in special education disputes. Education Law Center founded and moderates the association.
In New Jersey, the NJ Department of Education (DOE) sends special education hearing requests to an independent state agency, the Office of Administrative Law (OAL), for hearings before Administrative Law Judges (ALJs) when parents and districts cannot reach agreement on special education services for students with disabilities. NJSEP member and attorney Lisa Quartarolo conducted an analysis of the State’s compliance with the 45-day timeline by reviewing decisions in special education cases posted on the OAL’s website.
“NJSEP attorneys handling special education cases on behalf of families have been frustrated and outraged by the inability to get timely resolutions in cases that require hearings,” said Ms. Quartarolo. “Because the education of children is at stake, we wanted to quantify the actual amount of time that cases remain undecided at the OAL, determine the factors causing the backlog, and point to solutions.”
The report underscores that a “longstanding ALJ shortage” is a major factor in the extreme delays. Although OAL moved closer to its full complement of 45 judges during the past year, in 2017, the agency still took an average of 261 days, or close to nine months, to reach final decisions. This average case length, which includes emergent and expedited cases, more than doubled over the period from 2014 to 2017.
The report emphasizes the delays are not minimal, but severe, and clearly violate federal law mandating prompt decision-making to ensure the rights of students with disabilities are fully protected.
NJSEP is calling on Governor Phil Murphy to “prioritize the fixing of this broken system,” by taking steps that include the following:
- Ensuring sufficient numbers of ALJs;
- Appointing ALJs with the experience and expertise to handle special education cases;
- Developing adequate tracking and reporting programs to make data about hearing delays readily accessible; and
- Tasking DOE with undertaking systemic reforms that will decrease the need for hearings in special education disputes.
NJSEP has also suggested that the State identify and adopt effective practices from states that have been more successful in providing timely hearings.
“It’s simply unacceptable for a special education case to take most, or even more, than a full school year to be resolved,” said Elizabeth Athos, ELC Senior Attorney. “These delays can no longer be tolerated. The NJSEP report shines the spotlight on an egregious violation of law and offers the new Administration the opportunity to rectify this wrong.”
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