Families & the Community

IDEA Issues Getting Ear of High Court

By Andrew Trotter — November 07, 2006 9 min read
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By granting review of its third case in two years involving the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the U.S. Supreme Court has signaled a renewed interest in resolving legal conflicts arising under the federal law that governs services provided to nearly 6.7 million schoolchildren in special education.

The justices have agreed to consider whether parents who are not lawyers have a right to represent themselves, or their child, in federal court in disputes with school districts over the child’s educational placement.

The high court’s decision in the case may determine whether many low- income parents of children with disabilities have meaningful access to the federal courts, advocates for families say. They cite scarcity of free legal aid and the reluctance of private lawyers to take IDEA cases unless they are very likely to prevail. The law provides for awards of legal fees to the prevailing party in the case.

Though a lawyer is the best option, “at least if parents will go [into court] on their own, they have a chance that a hardworking federal judge or law clerk will help level the playing field and at least give the parents a chance to prevail, rather than having no access at all,” said Jean-Claude André, the Los Angeles lawyer representing the family in the new case. Some legal experts worry, though, that children’s interests will suffer if their parents are allowed to represent them in such proceedings.

Building-Block Cases

The justices on Oct. 27 granted review of Winkelman v. Parma City School District (Case No. 05-983), which likely will be argued in February. The spurt of IDEA cases—the new addition to the docket and the pair of closely watched cases decided in the 2005-06 term—recalls the series of IDEA disputes the court tackled in the 1980s.

Legal experts said last week, however, that the recent cases don’t have the landmark status of those decided two decades ago, which hammered out definitions of the appropriate education due to a child with disabilities, the nature of the related services the child was entitled to, and the school district’s responsibility to reimburse parents for a private school placement, among others.

Those earlier cases were building blocks that still shape interpretations of the special education law, originally passed by Congress in 1975 as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, said Perry A. Zirkel, an authority on the IDEA who is a professor of education and law at Lehigh University, in Bethlehem, Pa.

By contrast, the latest IDEA cases in the high court have turned on “very technical, legalistic fine points that would be interesting to litigators” and “not a school practitioner issue,” Mr. Zirkel argued.

One of last term’s decisions, Schaffer v. Weast, established that the party seeking a due-process hearing—usually parents of a child with disabilities in a dispute with the school district—bears the burden of proof in the case. The other IDEA decision last term, Arlington Central School District v. Murphy, held that parents are not entitled to be reimbursed for fees paid to nonlawyer experts who helped them win disputes under the law.

Naomi E. Gittins, a senior lawyer at the National School Boards Association, agreed that the Schaffer and Arlington Central cases and the potential ruling in Winkelman do not present “the major issues people think of when they think of IDEA.” But, she said, “they are important in terms of making sure there’s uniform administration of the law.”

See Also

Read the related story,

The NSBA usually files friend-of-the-court briefs in any accepted Supreme Court appeal affecting school districts, but Ms. Gittins said the Alexandria, Va.-based group has not yet decided whether to file one in Winkelman.

Other IDEA issues are stirring in some lower federal courts that are much more vexing to educators and families, Mr. Zirkel of Lehigh said. Those issues include: what today constitutes the “free, appropriate public education” guaranteed by the IDEA; whether the “least-restrictive environment” for the child means inclusion, whenever possible, in regular classes or something else; and, most recently, whether a child’s appropriate education should be guided by the specific learning disability or the child’s “response to intervention.”

• Winkelman v. Parma City School District:
In this case, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide another legal issue arising under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act: whether nonlawyer parents may represent themselves and their children in federal court cases under the law.
The Supreme Court and Special Education
The high court has made a number of major rulings under the IDEA and its predecessors. Congress first enacted the law in 1975 as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act.
1982 Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School Districtv. Rowley:
In its first major interpretation of the 1975 law, the court held that states and districts need not provide children with disabilities the “best” education available, but that they must follow the procedures set forth in the law and provide an educational plan that is reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive education benefits.
1984 Irving Independent School District v. Tatro:
A district must provide “clean intermittent catheterization” during the school day to a child with disabilities who needs it to be able to attend school. The procedure is a required “related service” under the law, the court ruled.
1985 Burlington School Committee v. Department of Education of Massachusetts:
The court held that parents who unilaterally place their child with disabilities in a private school during a dispute over the child’s public school placement are entitled to reimbursement for tuition and expenses when the courts later determine that the parents’ placement was appropriate and the school district’s placement was inappropriate under the law.
1988 Honig v. Doe:
A school district may not suspend a violent or disruptive child with disabilities for more than 10 days without first going through the due-process procedures of the special education law, the justices ruled. Later amendments to the IDEA have set forth criteria for determining whether the disruptive behavior was a manifestation of the child’s disability.
1994 Florence County School District No. 4 v. Carter:
A court may order a school district to reimburse parents for the costs of placing a child with disabilities in a private school that provides the child an appropriate education, even when the school is not approved by the state, the high court held.
1999 Cedar Rapids Community School District v. Garret F.:
The justices ruled that the IDEA requires school districts to provide one-on-one nursing services to students with serious disabilities who need such care in order to attend school. The court said such care was a required “related service” under the law and not an excluded “medical service.”
2006 Schaffer v. Weast:
The party seeking a due-process hearing under the IDEA is the one that bears the burden of proof in the case, the court held. Since most requests for due-process hearings come from parents, the ruling was considered a victory for school districts.
2006 Arlington Central School District v. Murphy:
The justices held that the IDEA does not authorize parents who win legal disputes over their children’s special education plans to be reimbursed for the costs of experts, such as expert witnesses or nonlawyer consultants who assist them in their dealings with districts and legal preparations.
SOURCE: Education Week

Before the cases in the 2005-06 term, the high court had not delivered a major IDEA decision in seven years.

The newly accepted appeal stems from a lawsuit by Jeff and Sandee Winkelman, two Ohio parents who challenged the appropriateness of a school’s educational plan for their son Jacob, who has autism spectrum disorder.

After several administrative hearings at which the parents represented their son, the Winkelmans sued the 13,000-student Parma district in U.S District Court in Cleveland, challenging decisions by hearing officers that the district had provided their son a free, appropriate public education as required under the IDEA.

The district court ruled in favor of the school system in June 2005. A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, in Cincinnati, ruled unanimously in November of last year that the parents could not proceed in that court without a lawyer.

The parents appealed to the Supreme Court, and in May the justices asked the Bush administration to weigh in. In a brief filed Sept. 20, U.S. Solicitor General Paul D. Clement suggested that the 6th Circuit court’s holding, barring parents from representing themselves under the federal special education law, was “inconsistent with the plain language, structure, and purposes of IDEA.”

The Parma district, in a brief opposing Supreme Court review, argued that the IDEA allows parents to represent their children in state administrative proceedings under the federal law, but not in federal court proceedings.

The high court has not addressed whether parents are entitled to sue on their own behalf under the IDEA or if their right to file an IDEA lawsuit derives only from their child’s rights under the law, the solicitor general said.

While the 6th Circuit court held that nonlawyer parents may not press an IDEA case in federal court under any circumstance, another federal appeals court has ruled that nonlawyer parents are not limited at all. Four other appellate courts have held that such parents need a lawyer to press a child’s substantive claims under the IDEA, but not the parents’ procedural claims.

Access Is Issue

Whether the right is derivative is key, Solicitor General Clement argued, because a nonlawyer parent can only represent himself or herself and not the child.

Experts who generally favor families in IDEA disputes, as well as those who favor school districts, disagreed about whether allowing nonlawyer parents to conduct IDEA appeals would be harmful to the child or might be the best available alternative.

Christopher P. Borreca, a lawyer with Bracewell Giuliani, a Houston-based firm that often represents school districts in IDEA cases, said that “most of the jurisdictions, certainly ours in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 5th Circuit, have said the rights provided by the law belong to the child, and you are, in a sense, doing a child an injustice by not hiring an attorney.”

Kathleen Boundy, a co-director of the Center for Law and Education, a legal-advocacy group in Boston, agreed that the issue of parents’ legal representation of their children was complex, and a second-best solution to ensuring that low-income families have better access to legal representation.

“We basically need legal services across the country,” she said. “How many parents can really represent themselves pro se” the legal term for self-representation.

Michael J. Eig, a Chevy Chase, Md., lawyer who has represented families in many IDEA cases, including the Supreme Court appeal last term in Schaffer v. Weast, said that though he supports the parents in the Winkelman case, an irony is that if the parents win the right to represent themselves in federal court, “one has to believe that in the long run, the school districts are going to win more IDEA cases against unskilled parents representing themselves.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 08, 2006 edition of Education Week as IDEA Issues Getting Ear of High Court


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