Special-ed burdens

November 17, 2005

When parents and a school district disagree on how best to educate a disabled student, who should have the burden of persuasion if the issue goes to court? Basically, whoever initiates the court challenge, the U.S. Supreme Court said this week. That is most likely to be parents, such as the parents of a learning-disabled child in Montgomery County who brought this case to court. While the ruling seems to favor Goliath over David, school districts should not feel that their obligation to disabled students is diminished in any way.

Federal law guarantees an individualized education program for each of the nation's more than 6 million special-education students. These plans must assess a student's school performance, set measurable educational goals and specify the special services that the school will provide. Parents must be told about and agree to the program, but if there's a disagreement, the parents or the school district can take the issue to an administrative hearing. But who should have the burden of persuasion?

A 6-2 majority of the court found that Congress did not seem to deviate in the special-education law from other laws in which the burden of proof usually falls on the party seeking relief. It's a fair reading of the law, but also a considerable hurdle for parents, particularly low-income parents. That makes it even more critical for school districts to work with parents to come up with appropriate plans for disabled students so that these hearings remain a relatively rare exception to the process, rather than the rule.

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