Tuesday, November 15, 2005

High Court Rules Against Parents in Md. Special Education Case

Yesterday the U.S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Schaffer v. Weast, a case involving the administrative procedures used under challenges to individual education plans under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

The holding in the case was that the burden of persuasion in administrative hearings falls on the party seeking relief, whether it be the parents or the school district. The actual law does not mention who the burden should fall on and Justice O'Connor, writing for the Court's Majority, said

We have usually assumed without comment that plaintiffs bear the burden of persuasion regarding the essential aspects of their claims...In numberous other areas, we have presumed or held that the default rule applies...The ordinary default rule, of course, admits of exceptions.

But while the normal default rule does not solve all cases, it certainly solves most of them. Decisions that place the entire burden of persuasion on the opposing party at the outset of a proceeding--as petitioners urge us to do here--are exceedingly rare. Absent some belief that Congress intended otherwise, therefore, we will conclude that the burden of persuasion lies where it usually falls, upon the party seeking relief.

The problem in this case is that the parents, who are not without means, did not like the IEPs developed by the Montgomery County Public Schools. The family had their son in a private school in Rockville, MD, but by the time the boy reached the seventh grade, the private school asked the parents to look elsewhere for the boy's education. After trying the public school system, whose options they did not like, the parents sent their child to a private school in Virginia. Then the parents asked the Montgomery County Schools to cover teh $17,000 a year tuition at the new private school.

Not surprising, Montgomery County fought the decision.

From a legal standpoint this is exactly right decision. When you sue someone, you need to prove that you claim is right, there is no need in cases such as these to make the school prove that their plan is right. The presumption that is created when the burden of proof is on the school district from the start is that the IEP is wrong from the start. Such a presumption would all but force more cases like these to be thrown to the courts. Congress didn't speak about how to handle these cases, so the court just uses the default rule.

But is this a right decision from the educational standpoint? In many respects this is not a good case to make law on. The parents were wealthy (Potomac, MD is one of the wealthiest areas in the state) and could afford to send their kid to a private school. But special education kids raise so many questions of propriety, to what extent the schools must accomodate special needs kids and the cost of such accomodations, which must be born, ulitmately, by the taxpayers. Should their be an automatic presumption that the schools know what they are doing? Since I tend to question government involvement in a number of arenas, I tend to say no as my default position. In this realm, it may be that the parents, and the doctors, know the kid better than the school system.

This knowledge may be acknowledged by the involvement of hte parents in the development of a IEP, but that leaves the question, how much involvement do parents have in the formation of an IEP? I would suspect that the schools are more likely to impose, with few options, a plan comprising a menu of options rather than a truly tailored plan to fit the invdivdual child. Uniquely individual plans are expensive, even when aggregating some common expenses.

It may be that the Schaffers in this case were as unhappy with the process of the IEP developement for their son as they were with the end result. If that is the case, then perhaps this case will cause school systems and parents to begin to come together in a much more collaborative fashion.

The Washington Post has this story from yesterday and this story from today.

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