WASHINGTON—The Supreme Court on Monday opened the door for more parents with disabled children to challenge school districts over the quality of their children's educations.
In a blow to school boards, the justices ruled that certain parents can sue without attorneys. That could be a green light to the courthouse for some of the 6.8 million families nationwide who have children who rely on special education plans.
"It's hardly a novel proposition to say parents have a recognized legal interest in the education and upbringing of their child," Justice Anthony Kennedy declared.
Kennedy's majority opinion grants parents "independent, enforceable rights" to obtain education free for their kids who have disabilities. This means that parents who are unhappy with school district decisions about their children with disabilities can file their own lawsuits even if they aren't trained or licensed as lawyers.
Impoverished parents, in particular, may benefit from the ruling, while school boards may end up paying more to fend off additional lawsuits.
"Without question, a parent of a child with a disability has a particular and personal interest in fulfilling our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities," Kennedy wrote in his 18-page opinion.
The court's ruling in a case involving an autistic 9-year-old boy from Ohio subtly tilts the balance of power away from schools and in favor of families served by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Act.
The 1975 law requires that school districts provide "free appropriate education" to children with disabilities. School officials and parents collaborate in preparing an "individualized education program" for each child who's identified as having disabilities.
"It can vary in length," noted Susan Coston, the assistant superintendent of the Merced County Office of Education, in California's Central Valley. "It can go anywhere from four to six pages up to 14 or 15 pages."
The disabilities cover a wide range, from blindness and dyslexia to mental retardation and speech impairments. In California, Texas and Florida alone, a total of more than 1.5 million children currently have individual education programs written.
In Ohio, Jeff and Sandee Winkelman fought over a plan written for their youngest son, Jacob. The Parma City School District wanted Jacob placed in a public school. The Winkelmans wanted him in a specialized private school that costs some $60,000 a year.
Unhappy parents can first file an administrative appeal. An estimated 12,000 hearings are requested annually nationwide.
The Winkelmans sued after they lost their 2003 appeal, with Sandee Winkelman doing her own legal research at a Cleveland-area law school. The Parma school district, joined by school board officials nationwide, contended that the federal education law protected only the child, not the parents. By this reasoning, non-lawyer parents are ineligible to sue on the child's behalf.
"Children are the focus of this act and the focus of due process complaints," the National School Boards Association argued in a legal brief.
The court, though, concluded that since parents have the right to administratively appeal the education plans, they should be able to follow that up with legal action. This extends to parents who can't afford lawyers, the court decided.
"We find nothing in the statute to indicate that when Congress required states to provide adequate instruction to a child at no cost to parents, it intended that only some parents would be able to enforce that mandate," Kennedy wrote.
Six other justices joined Kennedy in the opinion. Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas agreed in part and dissented in part.