Stronger Law in Massachusetts Prevails Over P.L. 94-142, Federal Court Rules
A federal appeals court has ruled that schools must use state law as a standard in serving handicapped students where its provisions exceed federal law.
The ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit in David D. v. Dartmouth School Committee also allows state education officials to be challenged in federal court on the basis of state standard and law.
Lawyers familiar with the case said last week that because some 12 states have laws with provisions stronger than those of the federal Education for All Handicapped Children Law, P.L. 94-142, the ruling could have a "very important impact" on special education.
The case is the first to address the implications of the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling last year in Pennhurst v. Halderman, which stated that under the 11th Amendment state law cannot be in most instances applied against states officials in federal court.
That ruling also raised but did not address, lawyers said last week, the question of whether state laws can be in effect "incorporated" into federal law, thereby taking precedence over it.
Because the First Circuit Court answered that question affirmatively in the David D. case, the lawyers said, it opened the way for federal-court enforcement of state law against state and local officials.
The Massachusetts case involves a handicapped student named David D., now 19, whose parents had asked school officials for several years to place their son in a residential school for the mentally retarded.
However, school officials refused, saying David received appropriate education through a special-education program at Dartmouth High School.
In 1983, David's parents filed suit in district court, asking that their son be placed in a residential home.
Massachusetts law states that schools must "maximize the potential" of a handicapped student, and the parents argued that the special placement was needed for that reason. But state officials countered that the language of the state law did not mandate that type of placement for the youth, and that the law was similar in essence to P.L. 94-142.
In a 1982 decision, Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that although P.L. 94-142 requires that schools provide a "free and appropriate education" to all handicapped children, it does not obligate the schools to "maximize the potential" of such children.
But the district court ruled last October that state law, when it is more stringent than federal law, "operates to determine what an appropriate education requires for a particular child in a given state."
In its 2-to-1 decision, the First Circuit Court held that it did not "discern any intention that the federal act preempts and reduces all state standards to the federal minimum."
The ruling reaffirmed a 1984 First Circuit ruling in another special-education case, Burlington v. Department of Education. However, Robert Crabtree, a lawyer who filed a friend-of-the-court-brief on behalf of the Federation for Children with Special Needs, a Massachusetts advocacy organization, stated that the Burlington case did not specifically focus on the issue of a higher state standard. He noted that when the case was ultimately decided by the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year, the issue of incorporation was never addressed.
"David D. is incredibly important," Mr. Crabtree said. "It is the first decision in Massachusetts to turn on the question of the application of a higher state standard."
The appeals court held that because the federal special-education law includes the statement that a "free and appropriate education" must be made available "in accordance with state-education agency standards," state law is incorporated in the federal statute, and therefore the state law can be challenged in a federal court.
The court ruled that the Pennel13lhurst decision also does not apply because P.L. 94-142 was enacted by the Congress to ensure that handicapped children have equal protection under the 14th Amendment. The Congress clearly stated in the preamble to the statute that P.L. 94-142 was an "equal-protection law," the judges held.
Richard Howard, a lawyer for the plaintiffs in the case, said that the Congress "has the authority to override any state immunity from a suit if it is using its authority under the 14th amendment."
"This ruling really negates the im-4pact of Pennhurst," said Kathleen Boundy, staff attorney with the Center for Law and Education, a Massachusetts legal-aid organization.
"Had the appeals court ruled the other way, we would really have two standards," she added. "We would be denying the parents of handicapped children the right to obtain a free and appropriate public education in federal court."
"This is the first time that the courts have actually addressed explicitly not only the question of whether the state statute takes precedence, but whether Massachu8setts does in fact have a higher statute," Ms. Boundy said.
Kim Murdock, assistant state attorney general, agreed that the ruling may have a "very important impact."
Ms. Murdock said the ruling not only brings into question the precedence of state over federal law, but also the interpretation of the state's special-education law.
"I disagree that our state law is stronger," she said. "It's different and older, but our state department of education has always viewed [P.L. 94-142 and Massachusetts state law] as requiring the same thing."
Ms. Murdock said that her office is considering a Supreme Court appeal.