The Ruling's Regional Impact

D.C. Schools See Opportunity to Pare Back

By Lori Aratani and V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 15, 2005

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling that leaves Montgomery County parents with the burden of proof when they dispute special education plans could prompt a shift in D.C. public schools, where educators now must prove that their programs are adequate.

A 6 to 2 decision in a case brought by a Potomac family essentially maintained the status quo for Virginia and Maryland schools. But administrators in the District say they will use the ruling to upend their policy, which has long sustained high special education costs, attributed mainly to the hearings and appeals that can result in students being placed in expensive private facilities outside the city.

D.C. school board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz said she would welcome a chance to align board policy with the federal ruling.

"We have the highest number of court hearings in the country," she said. "This will help us pare down the amount of money spent on special education and allow us to use that money to give students a world-class education in the D.C. school system."

The system's costs for hearings and appeals has risen from $499,000 in fiscal 2001 to $2.9 million in fiscal 2005. A change in policy, said Erika Pierson, the school system's deputy general counsel, "will keep some attorneys from filing frivolous cases."

But many parents and advocates for the disabled said they feared children would suffer.

"For parents who are not educated, who are poor and have limited resources, this is really going to hurt," said Kim Y. Jones, executive director of Advocates for Justice and Education, an organization that supports parents in special education cases.

Jocelyn Schaffer, the Potomac woman who with her husband brought the case forward on behalf of their youngest son, Brian, said she was disheartened by the court's decision. "It makes me very sad," she said. "I don't think the difficulties parents face are fully appreciated by the court."

Schaffer v. We ast had been closely watched by education officials and special education advocates across the country. With more than 6.7 million students receiving special education services under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, its outcome could have significant implications for school systems across the nation.

Educators feared a decision in favor of the plaintiffs would lead to costly litigation that would siphon money away from classrooms. Advocates, however, maintained that it would force school systems to be more accountable for the services they offered special needs children.

Yesterday, educators across the Washington region greeted the court's ruling with a sense of relief.

"It would have been a financial disaster otherwise," said Frank E. Barham of the Virginia School Boards Association.

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