Published: November 17, 2005
It may take years to assess fully the impact of the Supreme Court ruling on Monday on disputes between school districts and the parents of special education students, experts across the country have said. The decision gives parents who disagree with the individualized education plans the burden of proving that the plans are inadequate.
Advocates for disabled children greeted the ruling with dismay. In some states, they acknowledge, it will have virtually no effect. In others, the effects remain to be seen. Some advocates are looking for ways around the ruling, like seeking state or federal laws to shift the burden of proof to school districts.
“This is something where it would be very hard to predict exactly what’s going to happen,” said Arlene Mayerson, directing lawyer of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund.” Obviously it’s bad news to parents. But how bad the news is we’ll have to wait and see.”
Ms. Mayerson said she believed that at the very least some parents would be deterred from pursuing complaints against school districts. She added that districts, knowing that parents have to assemble convincing cases, might be less likely to compromise beforehand.
“It’s like one more message to the parents that they’re up against formidable odds,” she said.
Essentially, states fall into three categories on disputes over individualized education plans. One group includes Texas, Virginia and Maryland, where the Supreme Court upheld what has been in practice. The second group includes New Jersey and New York, where the burden of proof shifts to the parents. In the third group, states including Alabama and Connecticut have regulations or statutes that place the burden of proof on school districts.
Peter W. D. Wright, a lawyer in Virginia who has represented more than 1,000 parents of special education children, cautioned against gloomy predictions. Mr. Wright said that when disputes did proceed to trial “who has the burden of proof in my cases is really a nonissue.”
But, he added, “If the school district had had the burden of proof in the very beginning in Virginia, there is a definite chance I think that more issues would have been resolved by parents and schools, without parents even having to consult with me in the first place.”
In Connecticut, because of a regulation placing the burden of proof on school districts, officials say they expect virtually no changes because of the Supreme Court ruling.
“We think that as of right now, unless the federal government tells us otherwise, we can continue to do as we have done with our system,” Attorney General Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut said. “We believe that our regulation embodies a valid state policy that articulates our belief that school boards are in a better position to muster the facts and expertise in any contest with ordinary parents.”
In New York, Assemblyman Steven Sanders, the Manhattan Democrat who is chairman of the Assembly Education Committee, said he intended to propose such a law. “I definitely think that in light of this court decision any state that is concerned about fairness for parents in this process will have to fill this vacuum and enact some kind of state law or regulation that would restore to parents their rights,” he said.
In New York City, the Education Department praised the Supreme Court decision. But Elisa Hyman, deputy director of Advocates for Children, a group that frequently works on special education cases, said she believed that poor city parents would suffer.
“Many of the parents of kids who get special education services in New York City find the system extremely confusing to navigate,” she said. “They certainly are not going to be able to understand what they need to prove to meet their burden.”
©2005 The New York Times Company