Leadership Symposium Early Bird Deadline Approaching | Join K-12 leaders nationwide for three days of empowering strategies, networking, and inspiration! Discounted pricing ends March 1. Register today.
Special Education

Supreme Court to Hear Case on Burden of Proof in IDEA Disputes

By Caroline Hendrie — February 22, 2005 2 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

In a case with a potentially far-reaching impact on the administration of the nation’s main special education law, the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to consider whether parents or school districts should bear the burden of proof in disputes over services provided to children with disabilities.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires that parents and school officials be included on teams that craft individualized education plans for children with disabilities, but does not specify which side should be responsible for proving its case in an administrative hearing when they disagree over those plans. As a result, lower federal courts and state courts across the country have been split over the issue.

In a 2-1 decision last July, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., held that the burden of proof fell on Jocelyn and Martin Schaffer in their dispute with the Montgomery County, Md., school system over the education of their son Brian.

The Schaffers appealed, and on Feb. 22, the justices agreed to review the case, known as Schaffer v. Weast (Case No. 04-698). A lawyer for the Schaffers said he was delighted by the news.

“We believe that the court took this case in order to establish a uniform national rule on what we regard as an important civil rights issue,” said William H. Hurd, a former state solicitor general for Virginia who is now in private practice in Richmond.

“There are 6.5 million children who receive services under the IDEA, which is a huge number,” Mr. Hurd continued. “When parents sit down and negotiate the terms of a child’s educational plan, it is very important to know who will have the burden of proof when they come to an impasse.”

Statutory Silence

But a lawyer for the 139,000-student Montgomery County district said the majority of the 4th Circuit appeals court panel was right to conclude that parents challenging an IEP should have the burden of showing that it is insufficient.

“The IDEA is silent on who bears the burden of proof, so where the statute is silent, there’s no reason to deviate from the general rule that the party seeking relief has the burden of showing that they are entitled to relief,” said Eric Brousaides, who helped represent the Maryland district in opposing the Schaffers’ bid to get the high court to take the case.

In its July ruling, the majority of the 4th Circuit panel said Congress clearly understood that school districts have advantages over parents in resources and expertise in disputes involving special education services. But the panel majority said the IDEA contains many procedural safeguards designed to help level the playing field. Moreover, the majority held, Congress could have explicitly put the burden of proof on districts but declined to do so.

The judge who dissented in the 4th Circuit ruling argued that districts should be obligated to prove that the plans they advocate are appropriate, given that “[p]arents simply do not have, and cannot easily acquire, the cumulative, institutional knowledge gained by representatives of the school district from their experiences with other, similarly disabled children.”

Congress late last year passed a long-overdue reauthorization of the IDEA that includes several provisions aimed at reducing legal conflicts between parents and school districts over special education services. But the revised law did not address the question of burden of proof in IEP administrative hearings. The Supreme Court will hear arguments in the Montgomery County case in its 2005-06 term, which begins in October.

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

Special Education Using Technology for Students in Special Education: What the Feds Want Schools to Know
Assistive technology can improve outcomes for students in special education, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
4 min read
Black students using laptop in the lab with white female teacher- including a female student with special needs.
E+/Getty
Special Education Q&A Schools Should Boost Inclusion of Students With Disabilities, Special Olympics Leader Says
Schools have work to do to ensure students with intellectual and developmental disabilities feel a sense of belonging, Tim Shriver said.
6 min read
Special Olympics Chairman Timothy Shriver greets a child at one of the organization’s events.
Special Olympics Chairman Timothy Shriver greets a child at one of the organization’s events.
Courtesy of Special Olympics
Special Education Spotlight Spotlight on the Science of Reading for Students with Disabilities
This Spotlight will empower you with strategies to apply the science of reading to support students with learning differences and more.
Special Education Video A Student Wrote a Book About Her Learning Disability. Now, She Has Advice for Teachers
Zoe Kozina, 17, is the author of Your Beautiful Mind, a children’s book published this year.