The Supreme Court, using a Montgomery County, Md., case to resolve a long-running, hotly contested national dispute, ruled today that the nation's school systems are not legally obliged to prove the adequacy of individualized educational programs set up for disabled children.

Rather, the court said, it is up to individual parents, when dissatisfied, to demonstrate a program's inadequacy.

The 6-2 decision, which settled a split in the federal courts, was a major blow to parents' advocacy organizations, which argued that most families are not financially able to bear the burden of persuasion when going up against a board of education or a school superintendent. School officials across the country similarly contended that their resources would be drained by having to meet each challenge with a showing of adequacy.

The Individualized Education Program (IEP) is a blueprint for the services a special education student will receive as mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Parents unhappy with the program -- and there are many thousands at any one time across the country -- may challenge it before an administrative law judge. But the law is silent on which party, the parent or the schools, has the burden or proof.

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, writing in a 6-2 decision, said ordinarily the burden lies "where it usually falls, on the party seeking relief," in this case, the parents.

She said the court saw no reason to depart from this "default" position. The law, she said, does not support the argument that "every individualized educational program should be assumed to be invalid until the school district demonstrates that it's not."

Indeed, she said, "there is reason to believe that a great deal is already spent on IDEA administration, and Congress has repeatedly amended" the law "to reduce its administrative and litigation-related costs."

Joining O'Connor were Justices John Paul Stevens, Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, David Souter and Clarence Thomas. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., whose former law firm helped represent the Montgomery County schools in the case, did not participate. Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer dissented, saying the majority's decision ran contrary to the purpose of the act.

Jerry B. Weast, superintendent of the Montgomery County Public School System, called the court's decision "a victory for special education teachers in Montgomery County and across the nation who work hard everyday to provide the best possible education for students with disabilities."

He added, "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."

Michael Eig, the attorney for the family that sued the school system, said, "We're disappointed."

Today's case, Brian Schaffer et al v. Jerry Weast |, concerned the educational services that were due under the law to Brian Schaffer, who suffers from learning disabilities and speech-language impairments.

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. Traditionally, the party that challenges the appropriateness of an IEP must prove in an administrative hearing why it is flawed. The Schaffer case sought to challenge that notion.

In the Schaffer case, attorneys argued that the school system -- with all its expertise and resources -- was best positioned to bear the burden of persuasion, rather than the parents, who lack access to similar resources. Parents of special education students hoped a ruling in favor of the Schaffers would give them more influence in the IEP process.

But school systems feared that a ruling for the Schaffers would force them to spend more money in court than in the classroom. Lawyers for Montgomery County Public Schools said that placing the burden on the school system would create the presumption that all IEPs were flawed from the start. It also would give parents less incentive to work collaboratively with the school system, they argued.

Jocelyn Schaffer said she and her husband knew early on that Brian had learning difficulties. He was slow to begin speaking and preferred to communicate using hand gestures and motions. Unlike many young children, he didn't like to color or draw and had difficulty sitting still. But he excelled at physical pursuits and was able to ride a bike by the age of 3, his mother said.

When he was 2, the Schaffers hired a speech therapist to work with their son, and when he was old enough for kindergarten, the Schaffers chose Green Acres, a small private school in Rockville where the emphasis was on hands-on learning. He liked the school but struggled academically. By seventh grade, administrators recommended that the Schaffers find another program for Brian.

The family turned to the public schools. But from the very first meeting in February 1998 to develop an education plan, the school system and the Schaffers disagreed on Brian's diagnosis.

The Schaffers' experts said Brian had a "unique central auditory processing deficit" and required placement in a self-contained, full-day special education program.

The school system's experts diagnosed him with a "mild speech-language disability" and recommended a setting where Brian and other special education students would take regular classes, but would have an aide to help them with lessons. In addition, Brian would get 45 minutes each weekof small-group speech therapy and 45 minutes of reading and writing support every day in a special education classroom.

When the Schaffers expressed concern that the classes at his middle school were too large, the school system recommended a second school not far from the family's home that had smaller classes.

The Schaffers declined the placement and in September 1998, enrolled their son at the private McLean School. They filed a complaint against the school system challenging Brian's education plan, saying it did not meet their son's needs and seeking reimbursement for the private school tuition.

An administrative law judge said the facts were evenly balanced but ruled for the school system because, he said, the parents "bear the burden of persuasion."

The Schaffers appealed to U.S. District Court in Maryland, which sent the case back to the administrative law judge with instructions to reconsider the case with the burden of proof on the school system, and that caused the judge to reverse his ruling.

The District Court rejected an appeal by the school system, which then appealed to a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit, which ruled 2-1 in favor of Montgomery County.

The parents, O'Connor wrote today, "in effect ask this Court to assume that every IEP is invalid until the school district demonstrates that it is not. The Act does not support this conclusion. . . . The burden of proof in an administrative hearing challenging an IEP is properly placed upon the party seeking relief."