May 22, 2007 in Nation/World

Parents of disabled kids get leverage on schooling

McClatchy The Spokesman-Review

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 wrote.

Kennedy’s majority opinion grants parents “independent, enforceable rights” to obtain education free for their kids who have disabilities. This means parents who are unhappy with school district decisions about their children with disabilities can file 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 lawsuits.

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.

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.

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