Academic journal article Exceptional Children

An Analysis of Judicial Outcomes of Special Education Cases

Academic journal article Exceptional Children

An Analysis of Judicial Outcomes of Special Education Cases

Article excerpt

As the country's primary special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) mandates a partnership between school districts and the parents of students with disabilities. To the extent that this partnership is productive, millions of Individualized Education Program (IEP) teams annually invest their resources and energy in the productive design and implementation of free, appropriate educational programs for eligible students in least restrictive settings. During the original legislative discussion, Senator Stafford commented: "It is part of the rhythm of life in this country, an unconscious assumption, that our children will be educated. So it should be for the handicapped child and his parents. It should not be, for them, a court battle" (Winnick, 1987). A court battle, however, it has often become.

The IDEA has a multistep process to resolve disputes. The 1997 amendments to the IDEA require that states offer mediation as a dispute resolution option for parents and school districts. When mediation fails or is bypassed, the IDEA's dispute resolution machinery continues with impartial due process hearing officers who conduct formal hearings. Parents and school districts, now adversaries, are typically represented by attorneys in these proceedings. Half of the states provide a two-tier structure: initial due process hearings and a second tier of state-level administrative review (Robinett, 1993). Either side, having "exhausted" (i.e., utilized completely) these administrative proceedings, may file a civil lawsuit in either state or federal court.

While education litigation in general declined in the 1980s and 1990s, special education litigation has increased dramatically (Zirkel, 1997). The 613 published court decisions during the 1990s represent almost a tenfold increase from the total in the 1970s. Similarly, in a study limited specifically to special education litigation, Maloney (1995) found that more than 60% of the pertinent 1,200 court decisions since 1978 had been decided since 1989.

The virtual explosion in special education litigation raises concerns about academic "deference." Under this longstanding doctrine courts abstained from substituting their judgment for that of educators, who possess "special expertise" in academic affairs. Realizing, however, that it was "asking the same professionals who had excluded handicapped children in the past to now ensure their right to an appropriate education" (Kuriloff, 1975), Congress left under the IDEA the degree of deference to be accorded to the decisions of school officials; to impartial hearing officers; and, in two-tier states, to state-level review officers. The Act merely directs that "the court shall receive the records of the administrative proceedings, shall hear additional evidence at the request of a party, and, basing its decision on the preponderance of the evidence, shall grant such relief as the court determines is appropriate" (20 U.S.C. Sec. 1415(i)(2)).

In the Board of Education v. Rowley (1982) decision, the Supreme Court addressed the question in terms of a general standard of judicial review. "Standard of review" is a legal concept that defines how much weight a judge should accord to earlier decisions in the same case. A de novo review would have extended no deference to the earlier proceedings. At the other extreme, a more traditional review standard would have made the state administrative findings conclusive if supported by "substantial evidence," a highly deferential standard which requires only that a reasonable person could find the evidence adequate to support the conclusion (Davis, 1988).

Faced with these polar choices, the Court chose an intermediary deference option. The Court interpreted the Act's directive of "receiv[ing] the records of the [state] administrative proceedings" as implicitly requiring courts to accord such administrative decisions "due weight" (p. …

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