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. Weast 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.
Fairfax County school board member Stuart D. Gibson (Hunter Mill) said that if the court had ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, parents would have had little incentive to work with school staff instead of heading to court.
"The expense comes in terms of time that our special education people are not spending with children," he said.
For Montgomery, which spent seven years and an estimated $300,000 in legal fees on the case, the ruling was "a victory for special education teachers in Montgomery County and across the nation," said Superintendent Jerry D. Weast.
The case centered on individualized education programs, or IEPs, the blueprints for which services special education students will receive. 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 why it is flawed. The Schaffer case challenged that notion.
Schaffer said she and her husband knew early on that their son had learning difficulties, so they enrolled him in a small private school in Rockville where the emphasis was on hands-on learning. When Brian reached the seventh grade, administrators at the school recommended the family find a new program.
The family turned to the public schools. But from their very first meeting in February 1998, the school system and the Schaffers disagreed on Brian's diagnosis and placement.
Unable to resolve their dispute, the Schaffers enrolled their son at the private McLean School in September 1998. They filed a complaint contending that the education plan did not meet their son's needs and seeking reimbursement for the private school tuition. Brian Schaffer eventually enrolled in a public school and graduated from Walter Johnson High School.
Jocelyn Schaffer said she e-mailed the news to her son, now a junior in college. He called her immediately.
"He said, 'Gee, Mom, this is really sad for other kids,' " Schaffer recounted.
Staff writers Rosalind S. Helderman and Nick Anderson contributed to this report.