It’s almost recess time for the Supreme Court justices, and we’re getting the usual flurry of decisions they hand down just before then. Passed over by most court reporters, who are focusing on higher profile rulings on campaign finance, the death penalty, and gerrymandering, was an important school law decision.
In Arlington Central School District v. Murphy, the Court ruled that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) does not require school districts to pay for expert consultant fees when parents win special education disputes. Here’s what BoardBuzz had to say most recently on this case. NSBA applauds the decision here.
Justice Samuel Alito and four other justices found that IDEA’s mandate to reimburse attorneys’ fees doesn’t also cover the costs of consultants, especially since the Spending Clause of the U.S. Constitution requires that Congress “unambiguously” set forth what strings are attached to federal funds so state and local governments can “voluntarily and knowingly” accept these terms. BoardBuzz readers may recall that the Spending Clause argument is a key point in the lawsuits over NCLB unfunded mandates.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg couldn’t sign on to the Spending Clause part of the decision, but she was a sixth vote for the view that IDEA itself can’t be read to cover expert fees. “Congress did not compose [IDEA], as it did the texts of other statutes too numerous and varied to ignore, to alter the common import of the terms attorneys’ fees’ and costs’.,” Ginsburg wrote.
Justice Stephen Breyer’s dissent focused on IDEA’s legislative history and argued that paying for consultants is consistent with Congressional purposes in enacting IDEA. Much of the oral arguments in the case amounted to a debate between Justices Breyer and Scalia over statutory interpretation, in the form of questions to the lawyers. Scalia is skeptical about relying on chaotic legislative history, while Breyer is somewhat more willing to consider it.
The decision is “decimating to parents,” says the director of the advocacy group founded by the consultant whose fee was disputed in the case, in this web-only article from Ed Week. She says the ruling “renders IDEA meaningless for those who have no resources.”
But as NSBA and its fellow amici pointed out to the Court, no one who’s ever dealt with IDEA thinks parents are powerless under this exhaustively detailed and prescriptive law. Notably, parents who disagree with a school district’s evaluation can obtain an independent evaluation, at public expense, by an education expert not associated with the district. What the decision does do, however, is avert some scary fiscal implications and limit another way to game the system. “We don’t view this as a victory for school districts over parents,” NSBA attorney Tom Hutton tells Ed Week. “It is a victory for the collaborative approach over the litigation approach.”
Georgetown law professor David Vladeck, who argued for the parents in the case, tells the Poughkeepsie Journal here that he hopes Congress will revisit this question. In fact, Justice Ginsburg wrote that it is not the Court’s role to “add several words Congress wisely might have included,” and “the ball, I conclude, is properly left in Congress’ court.” The ability of Congress to take away what the Court giveth provides even stronger incentives for school boards to make sure that districts are doing right by children with disabilities and that parents—and Congress—know it.
This latest development may be part of a trend BoardBuzz observed here when the Supremes handed down their last IDEA decision. In the last several years, all three branches of the federal government have shown that they’re a bit more willing to give America’s schools a little more benefit of the doubt when it comes to these difficult and emotional disagreements.
Considering the feds’ disgraceful bipartisan record of shortchanging IDEA and other education funding—a record that, unbelievably, is getting worse—it’s the least they can do.