The high court has ruled that parents may go to court on their own to enforce special education rights.
The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that Jeff and Sandee Winkelman of Ohio have the right as parents to use the federal courts to enforce special education rights for a disabled child without having to hire a lawyer.
The Supreme Court said that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which grants parents independent, enforceable rights to free appropriate public education, also entitles them to prosecute IDEA claims on their own behalf. The ruling reverses an earlier decision by the Court of Appeals, which had dismissed the Winkelmans’ appeal on the grounds of lack of counsel.
The ruling strengthens the rights of millions of parents who have children with disabilities, and who feel that their right to a free appropriate public education is being violated, but who cannot afford to fight a school district’s choice of a special education program. Previously, many parents across the nation had not been able to go to court unless they first hired a lawyer to represent them.
In an opinion released on May 21, 2007, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said the ruling "empowers parents to bring challenges based on a broad range of issues," and "strengthen[s] the role and responsibility of parents [by] ensuring that families of such children have meaningful opportunities to participate in the education of their children at school and at home."
The Winkelmans have a six-year-old son, Jacob, who has autism spectrum disorder. They believed that Jacob's IEP was inadequate, and that the Parma City School District in Parma, Ohio, failed to follow IDEA-mandated procedures. In the interim, they had enrolled their child at a private school, but could no longer afford to do so after one year. They wanted the school district to pay for the private school and reimburse them for the first year’s tuition, but the district refused. When they tried to challenge the district in court, a federal judge in Cleveland and the U.S. court of appeals in Cincinnati threw out their case because they didn't have a lawyer.
View the opinion on the Winkelman v. Parma City School District case at law.cornell.edu.