Back to School on Civil Rights
V. IDEA Litigation Challenging State Noncompliance
A. Introduction Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), parents and families of children with disabilities play a key role in enforcing the law. They initiate litigation and raise issues that otherwise may not gain attention. In order to pursue these issues, parents must find attorneys who are knowledgeable about IDEA and willing to accept cases where fee payment may be deferred or delayed until the case is settled. In other words, the attorney may not get paid unless the client wins and the court awards attorney's fees. Damages are rarely awarded in these cases, which are often protracted and expensive. During the pendency of the cases, until they are settled, the attorneys must be in a position to work without compensation.
Litigating attorneys in the private bar who are experts on IDEA are not commonplace.
Frequently specialty public interest organizations will accept such cases. The Protection and Advocacy systems (P&As), which provide legal representation and advocacy for people with disabilities in every state in the country, represent families in many special education cases.
"As you look at the priorities that are being set by the [P&As], almost all of our cases now are expulsion/suspension cases. We're just trying to keep kids in the classrooms."-- Curt Decker, Executive Director, National Association of Protection and Advocacy Systems (NAPAS), on the need for OSEP to fund legal advocacy for parentsThey are federally funded to provide such support. Nonprofit organizations such as the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund (DREDF), the contractor for this report, also provide such representation, but usually without federal funding. Both organizations report that they do not have sufficient resources to respond to all the requests for assistance that they receive from parents of students in special education. Without adequate support these organizations are unable to assist parents in raising issues, such as the following ones, which generate IDEA compliance.
B. Summary of Litigation in California, Illinois, and Texas In three recent cases, parents have challenged their state's monitoring and enforcement system in failing to address local noncompliance. Although the local education agency (LEA) and, ultimately, the state education agency (SEA) have responsibility for ensuring FAPE to all children with disabilities in the state, when the LEA fails in its responsibility to provide services and the SEA fails to properly monitor and enforce the law, as the following cases reflect, the burden of enforcement falls on parents.
In Corey H. v. Board of Education of the City of Chicago, Chicago public school students with disabilities brought a class action against both the City of Chicago Board of Education (CBE) and the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE). The students sought declaratory and injunctive relief to correct CBE's and ISBE's widespread failure to educate children with disabilities in the least restrictive environment (LRE).
Although CBE agreed to settle with an extensive plan for correcting the LRE violations, ISBE continued to argue that it fulfilled the IDEA's LRE mandate. ISBE claimed that IDEA (20 U.S.C. 1412(6)) requires only that it provide oversight and general supervision of CBE's LRE efforts. ISBE also argued that its monitoring efforts were adequate because OSEP had approved Illinois' state plan including its monitoring plan. The court, however, found that Congress intended to place final responsibility and accountability in one agency, and held that once ISBE had accepted IDEA funds, it was responsible to ensure compliance with the IDEA's LRE requirements. As the court put it, "the evidence presented at trial demonstrates beyond doubt that, despite the fact that the LRE mandate has been on the books since 1975, the Chicago public schools have languished in an atmosphere of separate and unequal education for children with emotional, mental, and behavioral difficulties." The fact that OSEP may have approved Illinois' plan was not dispositive. The court affirmed the right of parents to enforce their children's rights and ensure compliance with IDEA independent of OSEP's actions or inaction. To the court, ISBE clearly violated its duty to establish its own effective monitoring and enforcement system.
The Corey H. court found numerous systemic failures in ISBE's monitoring and enforcement of IDEA's LRE requirements: students with low-incidence disabilities were placed in highly restrictive placements, ISBE's funding formula perpetuated segregating children with disabilities, and when the CBE failures were pointed out to ISBE, ISBE took little or no action to ensure the failures were corrected. The court ordered the ISBE to identify and correct its LRE violations, inform its teachers and administrators of their IDEA responsibilities regarding LRE implementation, certify teachers according to LRE requirements, and establish a state funding formula that reimburses local agencies for educating children in the least restrictive environment appropriate to their individual needs. The court has since appointed its own expert to develop an effective monitoring and enforcement system for Illinois. A monitoring system currently in development will closely follow the focused monitoring approach being tested in Texas.
Another recent case challenging a state's failure to monitor and enforce LEA compliance with IDEA is Angel G. et al. v. TEA. Filed in 1994, this case was brought by parents on behalf of their children who resided in Texas Residential Care Facilities (RCF). The case alleged that the Texas Education Agency (TEA) failed to meet three responsibilities required of a state education agency by IDEA: (1) child find, (2) development of interagency agreements, and (3) effective monitoring and enforcement of LEA compliance with IDEA.
In 1996, the court in Angel G. approved a settlement agreement that resolved both the child find and interagency agreement issues but left open the issue of the effectiveness of TEA's monitoring system. TEA continued to fail to assure that its RCFs provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to children and youth with disabilities who reside in these facilities. An independent consultant issued a report finding TEA's monitoring system to be "fundamentally flawed" and recommended that TEA convene a group of experts to develop a replacement or supplemental system of special education monitoring. TEA initially refused to implement this recommendation but later informed the court that it had made substantial changes to its current monitoring system to ensure compliance with IDEA. The court requested that each party submit their plans for an effective special education monitoring system and held oral argument on the adequacy of these plans. Following this hearing, the court issued an order setting the case for an evidentiary hearing to begin on August 9, 1999, and to continue as needed. At this hearing, the court will examine "whether the components of the plan TEA filed in this case on August 14, 1998, are adequate to enable TEA to meet its burden as an SEA...."
In the most recent of these cases challenging the state's monitoring system, a group of eight children with disabilities in East Palo Alto, California, brought a class action lawsuit in November 1996 against their school district, the Ravenswood City Elementary School District, for extensive violations with all of the substantive and procedural requirements of IDEA; (e.g., failure to provide FAPE, extensive LRE violations, failure to ensure parent participation, utilizing discriminatory evaluation procedures, etc.).
The plaintiff children in this case, Emma C. v. Eastin, also sued the California Department of Education (CDE) for failing to monitor and enforce the law despite repeated findings of noncompliance in the school district.
After a period of intensive law and motion activity, the U.S. district court made a number of critical rulings in Emma C. The court held that (1) all available remedies, including money damages and compensatory education, are available under IDEA against the CDE and against members of California's Board of Education in their individual capacities; (2) that the nature of the systemic problems alleged in the suit made exhaustion of administrative remedies futile and therefore unnecessary; and (3) that the CDE was at that time incapable of ensuring compliance in the district because of the substantial inadequacies in its own monitoring and complaint systems. The court certified a class comprised of all past, present and future special education students in the district.
Following these court rulings, the plaintiff children in Emma C. and the CDE entered into a tentative settlement agreement in which CDE agreed to undertake a comprehensive step by step approach to bring Ravenswood into compliance. Plaintiffs also reached agreement with the district in which the district primarily agreed to abide by any corrective action plan developed by the state and independent monitors and provided for compensatory education to all eligible children.
Plaintiffs and the CDE are negotiating an agreement to change California's monitoring system to the focused monitoring approach proposed by the plaintiffs in the Angel G. litigation. The CDE has taken substantial steps already to convert to this approach, including commitment to a pilot program to test whether it will result in greater compliance.
C. Development of More Effective Monitoring Systems A group of these experts convened by the plaintiffs designed a proposed focused monitoring system for Texas. Known as the Chicago Group because the meeting was held in Chicago, these experts continue to flesh out the details of the system. In addition, advocates and experts in the states of Texas, California, and Illinois are reviewing the proposed system to refine and delineate it and address the many related complex issues. The state of California has committed to adopting this focused monitoring system and planned to conduct its first pilot program in 1999. The following is an overview of the proposed focused monitoring system.
The Texas work articulated five principles that provide the underpinnings for an effective state IDEA monitoring system. The system must (1) address all legal requirements and educational results for students, (2) include public involvement, (3) build on existing student data to increase system efficiency, (4) direct resources to areas of greatest need, and (5) result in timely verification or enforcement of compliance. Their approach is based on the notion of continuous improvement with a data-based accountability system.
The three components of the compliance monitoring system are (1) performance review, (2) policy review, and (3) complaint management. These three system components take place within the context of three ongoing activities: (1) the Comprehensive System of Personnel Development (CSPD), (2) oversight and enforcement, and (3) data design, analysis, and review.
At the heart of this system is the performance review process, which works as follows. The state agency conducts a performance review of each LEA. The outcome of the review is used by the SEA, in part, to place LEAs into one of four categories: (1) Continuous Improvement District --no additional compliance activities required by the state agency; (2) Data Validation District--sixty LEAs randomly selected annually to verify reported data and examine procedural compliance; (3) At-Risk District--self-study supplement to district improvement plan required; or (4) Focused-monitoring district--on-site investigation of specific areas of noncompliance conducted by the state.
In order to determine the category of each LEA, the state must develop a template for analyzing special education performance data and measuring compliance. Critical variables or indicators must be determined. Variables could include measures of graduation rates, drop-out rates, academic achievement levels, and placement (LRE) data. Standards must be developed for three types of trigger values. The first trigger value, which would apply to each variable, is the "at-risk" trigger. This trigger identifies LEAs that are "at risk" in their performance in that area. Critical variables would receive one trigger in addition to the "at risk" trigger. The second trigger for critical variables is the focused monitoring trigger, which identifies the districts that will receive a focused monitoring visit. The third value is used as a benchmark for each critical variable. The benchmark serves as the statewide performance goal for the critical variables designed to improve the performance levels.
The focused district monitoring occurs when an LEA exceeds the trigger for any critical data variable. The state creates an investigation plan that is tailored to the identified areas of noncompliance prior to the visit. The plan is individualized for each LEA and must incorporate several features including focusing on measurable data that indicate compliance or noncompliance with the identified issue, classroom observation, and input from parents and students. Districts that are designated as "at-risk" or "focused monitoring" must have plans for correcting areas of noncompliance. Technical assistance and personnel training should be provided to the LEA by the SEA if needed. The SEA must develop written procedures that outline the progression from noncompliance findings to enforcement so that they are consistently applied for each noncompliant LEA. These procedures should be clear to LEAs so that there is no doubt about the consequences for ongoing noncompliance.
Likewise, the state must have a system of progressive sanctions to use whenever any LEA fails to correct noncompliance within a specific time line. The proposed range of sanctions is as follows in ascending order:
Mandatory First-Level Sanctions require the state to send a letter of continued noncompliance to all families of students with disabilities served by the LEA and members of the state legislature.
A public hearing is held by the district's school board and the noncompliance information is a consideration in the evaluation of the LEA superintendent and relevant principals.
Mandatory Second Level Sanctions, which are to be implemented within 60 days of the first level of sanctions if noncompliance continues, require lowered accreditation of the noncompliant LEA and suspension or termination of responsible administrative officials.
Mandatory Third Level Sanctions, which are imposed 60 days after Level 2 sanctions if noncompliance continues, require a choice of one of the following options: (1) transference of federal and state special education funds to a neighboring LEA for oversight of the provision of special education in the noncompliant district; (2) partial withholding of federal and state special education funds while the LEA must continue to provide required services; (3) withholding of all federal and state special education funds while the LEA must continue to provide required services; and (4) recovery by the state of previously awarded federal and state funds. The elements of this proposed system have potential for correcting some long-standing weaknesses in Texas, California, and Illinois state monitoring. The proposed system has been implemented on a "pilot" basis only in California; more time is needed to test its effectiveness.
D. Findings and Recommendations
Finding # V.1 Parent advocacy and litigation have been critical means for exposing and remedying persistent and systemic IDEA noncompliance. The law depends on litigation in order to function effectively. Parents of children with disabilities are uniquely situated to identify and raise the legal issues related to persistent noncompliance with IDEA. Their financial situations, however, typically do not permit sustained private legal action, and not enough public resources are available to assist them.
Recommendation # V.1A Whenever Congress and the President approve an increase in the funding to be distributed to local schools under Part B of IDEA, Congress and the President should appropriate at the same time an amount equal to 10 percent of the total Part B increase to fund free or low-cost legal advocacy services to students with disabilities and their parents through public and private legal service providers, putting competent legal assistance within their financial reach and leveling the playing field between them and their local school districts. Litigation by parents is still a necessary recourse when administrative action at the state level to obtain FAPE for their child has failed. In some states, litigation has also been a vital catalyst to a more effective implementation of IDEA across the board. Access to legal assistance that could result in obtaining an appropriate education for their children remains beyond the financial reach of too many families. Federal funds currently available for low-cost legal services under the Developmental Disabilities Act, the Technical Assistance Act, the Rehabilitation Act, and the Protection and Advocacy for Individuals with Mental Illness Act must be supplemented to begin to address the need. This will be a start toward putting families on a more equal playing field with school districts that use tax dollars to hire legal counsel to assist them in avoiding compliance with IDEA requirements.
Recommendation # V.1B
OSEP should endorse the allocation of additional funding to public and private legal service providers, including the state PTIs, P&As, and IL centers, the private bar and nonprofit legal services centers, for the purpose of carrying out a coordinated strategy for making legal advocacy services more available to students with disabilities and their families.
Finding # V.2
Pilot programs in compliance monitoring and enforcement at the state level are testing the use of a broad range of flexible enforcement options in the context of corrective action plans linking specific noncompliance findings with agreed upon enforcement options and time lines.
Recommendation # V.2
OSEP should develop and test the use of state compliance agreements that incorporate appropriate sanctions selected from a broad range of enforcement options, and link them to the state's failure to correct specific noncompliant conditions within the agreed time frame. OSEP should also encourage the state's use of sanctions in this manner when the state's compliance monitoring indicates that LEAs are failing to correct findings of noncompliance.