Supreme Court Rules on Schaffer v. Weast

November 14, 2005
United States Supreme Court Rules 6 to 2 in Favor of MCPS in Schaffer Case on ‘Burden of Proof’ in Special Education Cases

The United States Supreme Court ruled 6 to 2 in favor of the Montgomery County Public Schools (MCPS) today in the Schaffer v. Weast case to decide who bears the burden of proof in special education cases under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Associate Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, in writing for the majority, agreed with the MCPS position that the party bringing a case should have the responsibility of proving the case. “Absent some reason to believe that Congress intended otherwise, therefore, we will conclude that the burden of persuasion lies where it usually falls, upon the party seeking relief,” O’Connor wrote.

“The Supreme Court decision today is a victory for special education teachers in Montgomery County and across the nation who work hard every day to provide the best possible education for students with disabilities. We defended this case for one simple reason—we didn’t want our teachers and staff spending more time in the courtroom instead of the classroom,” said Dr. Jerry D. Weast, superintendent of schools.

“We asked the Court to reject the assumption that a child’s educational program is automatically invalid until proven otherwise and to simply affirm the basic legal principle that if you bring a case, then you should have to prove the merits of your case. That’s what the Court did today,” Weast added.

Indeed, O’Connor wrote, “The Act does not support petitioner’s conclusion, in effect, that every IEP (Individualized Education Program) should be assumed to be invalid until the school district demonstrates that it is not.”

In a concurring opinion, Associate Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, “I believe that we should presume that public school officials are properly performing their difficult responsibilities under this important statute.”

The Court said that in IDEA, Congress provided parents with numerous procedural protections to ensure that “parents are not left to challenge the government without a realistic opportunity to access the necessary evidence, or without an expert with the firepower to match the opposition.” As a result, the school “bears no unique informational advantage.”

“We want and need our parents to work closely with our educational teams because we all have the same goal—to provide the right education for children with special needs,” said Dr. Weast. “Our concern with this case was that parents would reject this partnership and our special education teachers and other professionals would become targets for attorneys because parents would have no reason not to simply challenge everything, instead of working with us.”

The Schaffer case arose from a disagreement that began seven years ago involving a private school student who was to enroll in seventh grade in MCPS and receive special education services. At that time, the student’s parents challenged the IEP offered by school system staff and sought an administrative hearing. Several disputes ensued.

Eventually, the case reached the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond. That court decided that since the parents challenged the IEP, they should prove the merits of their complaint. Instead, the parents appealed to the Supreme Court.

The threat to special education staff is among the main reasons why various national groups joined together in support of the school system. These groups included the National Education Association, the Council of Great City Schools, the National School Boards Association, and the American Association of School Administrators. Also defending the school system were several state associations of school administrators, state school board associations, and several state attorneys general.

The federal government also joined the case in defense of the school system. The Department of Justice, the Department of Education, and the Solicitor General argued that Congress never intended that traditional procedures involving burden of proof should be changed when it authorized provisions for special education students under IDEA.

Instead, Congress included a variety of parental rights and safeguards in IDEA to make sure that parents and their children are protected. For example, IDEA gives parents the right to have an independent evaluation of their child at the school district’s expense, to participate in all meetings related to their child’s education, and to examine and copy all of a child’s records, as well as numerous other procedural safeguards.

MCPS currently serves more than 17,000 special education students with an annual budget of $311 million. Over the last five years, the special education funding has grown by 55 percent— up from $201 million—including more than $32 million a year in tuition for students in private school placements.

The student in the current case, Brian Schaffer, eventually enrolled in the school system and graduated from Walter Johnson High School in 2003. He is now in college.

More information is available on the MCPS Web site at the link below.

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