Special Education Battles at Issue in High Court Case

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The Supreme Court hears arguments Wednesday over whether the burden of proof in disputes over special education falls on the parents, or the school districts.


The Supreme Court today hears arguments in a case that could affect millions of special education students in public schools. At issue is the federal law that requires schools to provide every disabled child a, quote, "free, appropriate public education." The court will consider this question: When parents accuse the schools of falling short of meeting the law and the schools disagree, who has to prove their case, the parents or the schools? NPR's Libby Lewis reports.

LIBBY LEWIS reporting:

Brian Schaffer has learning disabilities. He spent six years in private school, then his parents asked the Montgomery County, Maryland, schools to place him in seventh grade. The schools considered Brian to have a mild language-speech disability. His parents said Brian had a more severe disability, central auditory processing disorder. Jocelyn Schaffer is Brian's mother.

Ms. JOCELYN SCHAFFER (Brian's Mother): If there are a lot of competing sounds, he has a hard time distinguishing what is the relevant sound to take in and then to get meaning from.

LEWIS: The Schaffers' own educational experts said what Brian needed was small classes with few distractions. The schools' experts offered Brian at least 45 minutes of speech-language therapy each week with several other students. After Brian's parents said they were concerned about class size, the schools offered a compromise, with smaller classes in English and writing. Otherwise, the schools said Brian would be fine in what are called inclusion classes, regular classes with 25 to 30 students that were co-taught by a special education teacher. Jocelyn Schaffer sat in on two inclusion classes at Robert Frost Middle School. She said the regular teacher was up front teaching while the special education teacher was whispering to the special education students in the back.

Ms. SCHAFFER: I thought, there is no way he can listen to two people at one time. He'll have a hard time listening to one.

LEWIS: Brian's parents turned down the offer and enrolled Brian in another private school. Then they filed a challenge under the law, seeking reimbursement for private school tuition. The schools refused, saying they've complied with the law. That was back in 1998. Now Brian is in college. His parents and the schools are still in court, with many people watching the case on both sides. Jonathan Franklin is a lawyer representing the Montgomery County schools in this case.

Mr. JONATHAN FRANKLIN (Lawyer): Every parent believes that the schools can do better for their child. What the Montgomery County public schools strive to do is to do what is in the best interests for all the children entrusted in their care, including the children with special needs.

LEWIS: He says if the schools have to justify every action they take in special education, it will drain time and money away from educating to litigating. Special education takes up more dollars as it is. Montgomery County, for instance, spends more than twice the amount, on average, for a special education student than a regular student. Franklin says when the schools can't provide a good enough plan, they spend much more. The district pays to send deaf children by taxicab to a school across the state, for instance. But in Brian's case, the schools felt they could educate him.

Mr. FRANKLIN: They don't feel it's appropriate in this case to spent $21,000 of taxpayer money to send the child to a private school program.

LEWIS: Both the Schaffers and the schools say this case boils down to fairness. But for the parents, what's fair is making the schools prove their plan is good enough. The schools say what's fair is to let the schools do their job and require parents to prove it when they don't. Libby Lewis, NPR News.

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