Disability Law, Moving Backward
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Published: November 18, 2005
The federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, known as the I.D.E.A., has greatly improved the lives of disabled schoolchildren across the United States. Before the original legislation was passed in 1975, children who were institutionalized with serious emotional problems could sometimes be found strapped to their desks and screaming at the top of their lungs. In the public schools, otherwise bright and capable children with undiagnosed learning disabilities were regularly shunted into corners and ignored.
The worst horror stories are behind us, thanks to I.D.E.A., which requires schools to give disabled children a fair and appropriate public education. There is still much to be done, and the financial burden can strain some school systems, particularly small ones. But the Supreme Court erred this week when it weakened the part of the law that allows parents to challenge the educational plan that the districts are required to make for each child.
The court ruling was the result of a controversy over whether the family or the school district should bear the burden of proof in determining whether a school had failed to provide an appropriate education. Some states argued, sensibly, that the school districts should bear the burden of proof, given their greater resources and public responsibility. But in a case involving a district in Maryland, where state law is silent on the issue, the Supreme Court ruled that the parents, as "the party seeking relief," should have that burden.
The court's ruling ignores the clear advantages that school districts almost always have over parents who challenge their decisions. The districts have the money, and many have lawyers and rosters of experts on their payrolls. But many of the families cannot afford legal representation at all.
With less pressure to justify themselves, the schools can simply stand pat - even when their educational plans have proved disastrous for the disabled children in question. This was clearly not the outcome that Congress intended when it passed this landmark law, and deliberately expanded the rights of disabled children and their parents.