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Once again New Jersey is making national news for its failure to properly serve students with disabilities. Back in 2019—pre-COVID, before things got worse for children eligible for special education services—a group of 10 parents sued the Murphy Administration’s Department of Education for taking more time than legally permitted to resolve special education cases. On Friday U.S. District Judge Noel L. Hillman granted class certification to those parents, so a federal case will move forward.
This particular lawsuit, reports the New Jersey Monitor, deals with federal law (IDEA) that says when there is a dispute between school officials and parents about a child’s educational programming, the state agency must make a decision within 45 days. But “the parents who sued waited substantially longer than 45 days for a decision — 791 days in one case — with most of the children receiving no or inadequate special education services during that time, according to the lawsuit.” The New Jersey Department of Education wanted Judge Hillman to dismiss the suit but he rejected that motion, allowing the case to move forward.
Attorney John Rue told the Monitor,
The due-process hearing system is profoundly broken — and has been for a generation. This is not a pandemic problem. It’s an endemic problem. We’re trying to fix a broken system so parents have recourse when they disagree with their school district.
Rue also notes that New Jersey gets “more than $400 million a year in federal aid” for public school students who are eligible for special education services.
Murphy’s DOE is badly understaffed and so is the Office of Administrative Law, which rules on special education cases. A 2018 report by the New Jersey Special Education Practitioners found that administrative law judges took close to nine months to decide disputes in 2017 — twice as long as they took just three years earlier. The parents in the case Hillman will decide want Gov. Murphy to add more Administrative Law judges so cases are heard within the limits of federal law. They also want compensatory services for their children.
The state Department of Education did not return a request for comment.