Monday, October 10, 2005

Special Education Goes SCOTUS

Keep an eye on the United States Supreme Court as it hears arguments about a case that may affect special education and local school districts:
The U.S. Supreme Court seemed to side with the Montgomery County public schools in the system's battle with a Potomac family over special education services as the justices heard oral arguments in the case yesterday.

Martin and Jocelyn Schaffer say that when there is a dispute, school administrators should be required under federal law to prove the adequacy of the special education plans they devise for learning-disabled students such as the Schaffers' son, Brian.

But questions and comments from the justices during the one-hour hearing strongly implied that most of the court agrees with the school system -- which maintains that the burden of proof should be on those trying to show that officials' plans are flawed.

Justice Stephen G. Breyer told the Schaffers' attorney, William H. Hurd, that he had "never seen a case" that "didn't start out with the idea that the person challenging" must prove his case.

Hurd responded that the situation is special because the federal statute at issue, the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, reflects Congress's intent to have parents and school systems collaborate to produce a workable plan.

But the school system says placing the burden of proof on educators would encourage expensive litigation rather than cooperation.

The law is silent on this point, and lower federal courts have issued conflicting interpretations.Hurd estimated the cost of settling disputes to be $22 a year for each of the 6.4 million special education students nationwide and told the court that this figure is not excessive.

There appeared to be some sentiment on the court for a ruling that would permit the states to place the burden on either side -- an option Salmons and the schools' attorney, Gregory G. Garre, said they would not rule out. Maryland has no state law on the question.

But Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, noting that Congress enacted the disabilities education act as a condition on the billions of dollars in federal money it pours into local schools, asked, "Why shouldn't we have a unified federal rule if this is a federal program?"
The case is Schaffer v. Weast. The decision of the Court is expected by July. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. did not participate in the case. He gave no reason, but the school system is represented by his former firm, Hogan & Hartson.

The above Washington Post article is informative, but what I found particularly interesting were all the details to be found
in this article published in the Silver Chips Online, which is the online student newspaper of Montgomery County's Blair High School. Here is a sample of what is seems to be an excellent piece of student-written reporting:
The Schaffers paid for private testing that showed that Brian Schaffer should be in classes with six or seven students, said Jocelyn Schaffer. They said MCPS failed to provide an appropriate public education mandated by the IDEA. Under MCPS's proposed IEP, Brian Schaffer would have been in classes with over 20 students and a trained special educator, according to the Schaffers. They believe the school system has the responsibility to prove that an IEP is adequate.

When school officials decide MCPS cannot provide quality services to a special-education student, the county pays for the student to attend a private school. Currently, 650 MCPS special-education students are in private schools, costing the county $32 million per year, according to Edwards. This expenditure constitutes over 10 percent of MCPS's $310.7 million special education budget. At Blair, Davisson annually refers about one student for placement at another public school or in a private school.
In order to avoid a lawsuit, our California school district is currently spending some $35,000 per year on tuition and daily transportation in order that a special education student may attend a private day school over on the coast.
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