Friday, May 25, 2007

Victories are Possible

Via Wiretap: Aaron Tang is the Co-Director of Our Education, a non-profit organization working to build a national youth movement for quality education.

Supreme court rules in favor of parents
In a rare, unanimous decision yesterday, the US Supreme Court ruled yesterday in favor of parents who wish to file lawsuits on behalf of their children for relief in accordance with the Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA).

The issue in question was whether parents could sue a school district that they felt was not providing the educational support required by IDEA, without the representation of an attorney. Most federal laws do allow individuals to represent themselves in court, but until now most federal courts have disallowed parents from representing their children under IDEA. The basis for this practice had been the position that IDEA only confers specific rights unto disabled children and not to their parents, and since children cannot represent themselves in any federal court, they must hire an attorney to do so. But all nine justices disagreed with this position on the basis that the parents do indeed have rights guaranteed in IDEA, with Justice Kennedy writing on behalf of the court, "The parents enjoy enforceable rights at the administrative stage, and it would be inconsistent with the statutory scheme to bar them from continuing to assert these rights in federal court. It is not a novel proposition to say that parents have a recognized legal interest in the education and upbringing of their child."

While the nine justices agreed on the rights of parents in this matter, there was some disagreement over the extent to which parents had the right to sue districts in accordance with IDEA. Though all nine found common ground on the parents' right to represent their children directly in cases seeking redress over procedural rights and to force a local district to pay for the costs of private tuition if the public school cannot provide appropriate education, two justices--Scalia and Thomas--dissented as to whether parents should be allowed to sue school districts without an attorney on cases challenging the basic question of whether their child's free, appropriate public education was "substantively inadequate."

The Court's decision is seen universally as a victory for special education advocates, particularly those parents who have disabled children but who are without the means to pay for attorneys and other advocates. In this case, the two parents in question, Jeff and Sandee Winkelman from Parma, OH, had already paid over $30,000 in legal fees without much success before seeking to represent their child directly. While there was some concern that allowing such parental representation would lead to more frivolous lawsuits and an increased burden on the courts, in the end it was found that equal access to the courts was more important.

It is an open question how much this decision will affect non-disabled children in the public education sphere. Because IDEA guarantees qualified children a free, appropriate public education, it actually secures for these children on a federal level something that other children do not possess - a substantive entitlement about the kind of educational opportunity the government must provide. Since there is no such federal right for non-disabled children, the question of whether their parents can sue without an attorney is moot. But there are state level constitutional claims which could be affected here, and I'd be eager to see whether more parents now decide to file lawsuits without attorneys challenging state governments for improved educational opportunities.

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