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In Special-Ed Case, Court Backs Montgomery Schools

Montgomery County, the nation's 17th-largest public school system, has more than 17,000 special-education students. It spends a total of $312 million per year on special-education services, including transportation.

The burden of proof is decisive only in the small percentage of cases in which a hearing officer finds that the evidence is essentially tied.

Still, a ruling in favor of the Schaffers could have tipped the balance of power toward parents in such cases nationwide, probably making it more likely that what are now marginal cases would have been filed and won.

With thousands of such disputes litigated each year at a cost to school systems nationwide of $146.5 million in the 1999-2000 school year, the most recent for which data exist, the impact of even a nuanced change in the rules could have been felt both in students' classrooms and in school system finances.

Before yesterday's decision, federal appeals courts had been divided on the issue. In addition to the District's regulation, four states -- Alabama, Alaska, Delaware and Minnesota -- have laws putting the burden of proof on the schools in at least some circumstances.

"I feel very, very sad for parents who feel that their child's needs are not being met but cannot provide for their child's needs on their own," said Jocelyn Schaffer. The Supreme Court's ruling, she said, "just makes it harder for them to be heard."

The Montgomery County superintendent of schools, Jerry D. Weast, hailed the decision as a victory for school systems across the country.

"We defended this case for one simple reason: We didn't want our teachers and staff spending more time in the courtroom than in the classroom," Weast said.

The process for developing an IEP is supposed to be collaborative but can turn combative when parents and the school system disagree on what is best for a child.

O'Connor was joined by Justices John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, David H. Souter and Clarence Thomas. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer dissented. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. did not vote in the case; it was argued only two days after he took office.

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