Families & the Community

High Court Backs Parents’ Rights to Argue Cases Under IDEA

By Mark Walsh — May 21, 2007 5 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Includes updates and/or revisions.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that parents have their own broad, enforceable rights under federal special education law, and thus they may represent themselves in federal court without the assistance of a lawyer.

The decision in Winkelman v. Parma City School District (Case No. 05-983) was unanimous on the idea that parents have some rights to represent themselves without a lawyer under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. But it split 7-2 on the idea that parents have substantive and procedural rights that encompass their child’s right to a free, appropriate public education under the law.

“Parents enjoy rights under IDEA; and they are, as a result, entitled to prosecute IDEA claims on their own behalf,” said the majority opinion by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy. “The decision by Congress to grant parents these rights was consistent with the purpose of IDEA and fully in accord with our social and legal traditions.”

“It is beyond dispute that the relationship between a parent and child is sufficient to support a legally cognizable interest in the education of one’s child,” Justice Kennedy added.

His opinion was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices John Paul Stevens, David H. Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, and Samuel A. Alito Jr.

Justice Antonin Scalia wrote an opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part that was joined by Justice Clarence Thomas.

Justice Scalia said he would hold that parents have the right to proceed pro se, or for themselves, under the IDEA in federal courts when they seek reimbursement for private school expenses for their child or for certain of their own procedural rights. But he would not let them proceed without a lawyer on the basic question of whether their child’s free, appropriate public education was “substantively inadequate.”

Justice Scalia also warned that cases pressed by parents without a lawyer would burden the court system.

“Since pro se complaints are prosecuted essentially for free, without screening by knowledgeable attorneys, they are much more likely to be unmeritorious,” Justice Scalia said.

Expense Cited

The case was brought by Jeff and Sandee Winkelman, who are not lawyers and want to represent their son in a lawsuit against the 13,000-student Parma, Ohio, school district, near Cleveland, over the child’s educational placement.

They cannot afford a lawyer, and they argued that the special education law allows them to represent their son, Jacob, who has a form of autism. The Winkelmans also contended that they may argue for their own rights under the federal law.

Although the parents lost on both issues in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, other federal appeals courts have recognized the right of nonlawyer parents to represent themselves, at least on procedural issues.

The Winkelmans say that requiring parents to get lawyers means that many families are shut out of federal court because of the expense, and because of a shortage of lawyers willing to take on special education cases. Supporting the family’s position are a number of disability-advocacy groups, as well as the Bush administration, which argues that parents themselves can be aggrieved parties in special education cases “who may pursue their own procedural and substantive claims in court.”

The school district argued that there is no language in the special education law that supports a departure from the basic procedural rule that a nonlawyer cannot represent another party’s interests in court. Parents don’t have the legal skills to represent their children in court, in contrast to less formal due-process hearings, where hearing officers may give them deference, the district said.

More IDEA Lawsuits?

The district developed an individualized education program for Jacob for the 2003-04 school year. The Winkelmans contended that he needed more support than the district was willing to provide. The family sought a determination that Jacob did not receive a free, appropriate public education under the IDEA, that his IEP was inadequate, and reimbursement for the tuition they spent at a private school where they have enrolled Jacob, who is 9 years old. That school, the Monarch School in Shaker Heights, Ohio, charges tuition of about $50,000 a year.

Christina Henagen Peer, a lawyer representing the Parma district in the case, said in a statement that “at every level, the administrative judges and the courts have concluded that the school district fully complied with the requirements of IDEA, offering a free, appropriate public education to Jacob Winkelman. The district looks forward to having the case heard on the merits so that this case can come to closure for the Winkelman family and the school district.”

Sandee Winkelman said the high court’s decision left her feeling “overwhelmed.”

“It’s a good day for parents,” Ms. Winkelman said. “Tomorrow we have to go back to Jacob. But today is parents’ day.”

Ms. Winkelman, who consulted the library at Cleveland State University and prevailed on sympathetic law students to help her find materials on special education law, now says the publicity has prompted lawyers to come forward and offer their assistance with the family’s case. After winning the right to argue the case on their own, it is unlikely the Winkelmans will end up doing so, she said.

“I always believed that everyone needs an attorney. You always have a better chance with one, let’s face it,” Ms. Winkelman said. “I hope parents don’t have to go without, but they can do it, now.”

Francisco M. Negron Jr., the general counsel of the National School Boards Association, said he was concerned that the court’s ruling would prompt more parents to consider filing special education lawsuits against districts on their own, without the assistance of legal counsel.

“Lawyers often serve as gatekeepers,” said Mr. Negron, whose Alexandria, Va.-based organization had filed a friend-of-the-court brief in the case on the side of the Parma district. “Lawyers have an obligation not to bring forward cases that are frivolous or without merit. Parents are undoubtedly emotionally involved in their children’s cases. They might not be able to bring the same kind of legal analysis to bear.”

Selene Almazan, a Towson, Md., lawyer who often represents parents in IDEA matters, said it was significant that the Bush administration had entered the Supreme Court case on the side of the Winkelmans, arguing that the text of the IDEA supported parental rights.

Ms. Almazan is a board member of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, a Towson-based group that filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the Winkelmans.

“Families proceed to litigation in very few cases,” she said. “I don’t think this is going to release a glut of lawsuits.”

Staff Writer Christina A. Samuels contributed to this report.

Events

Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Science of Reading: Emphasis on Language Comprehension
Dive into language comprehension through a breakdown of the Science of Reading with an interactive demonstration.
Content provided by Be GLAD
English-Language Learners Webinar English Learners and the Science of Reading: What Works in the Classroom
ELs & emergent bilinguals deserve the best reading instruction! The Reading League & NCEL join forces on best practices. Learn more in our webinar with both organizations.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Families & the Community Opinion Chronic Absenteeism Has Exploded. What Can Schools Do?
The key to addressing this issue is rebuilding the relationship between families and schools.
8 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
Families & the Community Leader To Learn From Absenteeism Was a Big Problem in This District. A New Strategy Is Getting Results
Sharon Bradley remembers how it felt to miss school for reasons outside her control.
11 min read
Sharon Bradley, director of student, family and community services for Plano ISD, listens to members of the Character, Attendance, and Restorative Education (CARE) team discuss their current projects in Plano, Texas, on Dec. 14, 2023. The CARE department focuses on equipping students and adults with the tools, strategies, and resources that support a safe, engaging, and collaborative learning environment through character education, attendance recovery, and restorative practices.
Sharon Bradley, the director of student, family, and community services for the Plano, Texas, school district listens to staff members on a special team that focuses on helping students and their families address a range of challenges that may get in the way of regular attendance and engagement at school.
Shelby Tauber for Education Week
Families & the Community Leader To Learn From A Former Teacher Turns Classroom Prowess Into Partnerships With Families
Ana Pasarella maximizes her community's assets to put students first.
8 min read
Ana Pasarella, the director of family and community engagement for Alvin ISD, oversees an activity as Micaela Leon, 3, a student in Alvin ISD’s READy Program, draws on a piece of paper on Alvin ISD’s STEM bus in Manvel, Texas, on Dec. 8, 2023.
Ana Pasarella, the director of family and community engagement for the Alvin Independent school district in Texas, oversees an activity as Micaela Leon, 3, a student in the district's READy Program, draws on a piece of paper inside the district's STEM bus in Manvel, Texas.
Callaghan O’Hare for Education Week
Families & the Community Parents Trust School Librarians to Select Books, But There's a Catch
A new survey shows what parents think of school libraries and librarians following efforts throughout the country to remove books.
5 min read
Books sit in a cart and on shelves in an elementary school library in suburban Atlanta on Aug. 18, 2023.
Books sit in a cart and on shelves in an elementary school library in suburban Atlanta on Aug. 18, 2023.
Hakim Wright Sr./AP