The United States Supreme Court released an opinion Nov. 14 ruling 6-2 in favor of Montgomery County Public Schools in a case that centers of federal special education law.
The decision comes just six weeks after the court heard arguments Oct. 5 in Schaffer v. Weast, in which a Potomac family argued that school districts should have to prove the adequacy of its special education services when parents dispute them in a formal hearing.
Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote the majority opinion, ruling that in such hearings, "the burden lies, as it typically does, on the party seeking relief," which in practice is almost always the parents.
O'Connor was joined in the opinion by Justices John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, David Souter and Clarence Thomas. Stevens also wrote an concurring opinion.
"We’re pleased. That would be an understatement," said Patricia O'Neill, president of the Montgomery County Board of Education. "6-2 is a decisive decision."
"We defended this case for one simple reason — we didn't want our teachers and staff spending more time in the courtroom instead of the classroom," school Superintendent Jerry Weast said in a statement. “We asked the Court to reject the assumption that a child's educational program is automatically invalid until proven otherwise. ... That's what the Court did today."
Petitioner Jocelyn Schaffer said in an interview that the school system's statements are disingenuous.
"As a citizen I feel like [the school system] spend[s] too much money fighting parents rather than trying to provide what the child needs," she said. "I just feel so sad for parents who don't feel that their child's IEP is adequate, yet they have such a hard time challenging the county."
O'CONNOR'S OPINION accepted petitioners' arguments that the federal law in question — the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act — establishes a unique "cooperative process ... between parents and schools," but refuted that school districts have insurmountable advantages in due process hearings.
"Petitioners in effect ask this court to assume that every IEP is invalid until the school district demonstrates that it is not," the opinion stated. "The Act does not support this conclusion."
The opinion cited the fact that parents have the right to view school records regarding their child and may recover attorneys fees if they prevail in a hearing.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer wrote separate, dissenting opinions.
Ginsburg agreed with many of the arguments Judge J. Michael Luttig made in his dissent at the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit — the case on appeal to the Supreme Court.
"The IDEA is atypical ... [because] it casts an affirmative, beneficiary-specific obligation on providers of public education," Ginsburg wrote. "The proponent of the IEP, it seems to me, is properly called upon to demonstrate its adequacy."
She added that placing the burden on school districts will "strengthen school officials' resolve to choose a course genuinely tailored to the child's individual needs."
Breyer was the only justice to directly address a major issue raised in the Supreme Court briefs and oral arguments — the idea that it should be up to states to determine how to allocate burden of proof in IEP hearings.
Breyer cited compelling arguments on both sides of the burden of proof issue, but said that "Congress took neither [side]. ... Instead it left the matter to the States."
THE MAJORITY opinion stated that because Maryland has no law addressing burden of proof in IEP hearings, applying that standard was not before the Court to decide.
Schaffer said that she has tried to see a silver lining to the loss, but she rejected the idea that special education parents are somehow better off because the case focused attention on their concerns.
"I wish I could say yes, but I don't see how they are," she said. "I can't see how they're better off now. I really can't."
O'Neill reiterated that the special education plan go to mediation or due process hearings and that most of those cases are resolved amicably.
"[But] it would be an overstatement to say special ed parents are happy with services, because everyone wants what's best for their children," she said. With a ruling that school systems always bear the burden of proof, "You could be in a position of nothing ever being resolved. ... A parent could always be upping the request."
Schaffer added that she had talked to her son the same day the opinion was released.
"He said he's just sorry for other kids whose needs aren't understood," she said.