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Supreme Court Rules: "Parents Have Independent, Enforceable Rights"
by Pete Wright, Esq. and Pamela Wright, MA, MSW

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Sandee and Jacob Winkleman

On May 21, 2007, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous[1] pro-parent, pro-child decision in Jacob Winkelman v. Parma City Schools.


The question before the Court was "whether parents, either on their own behalf or as representatives of the child, may proceed in court unrepresented by counsel though they are not trained or licensed as attorneys."


The Winkelman decision goes far beyond the question about whether parents can represent their children in court. In Winkelman, the Court listed and affirmed parental rights, the importance of parental involvement, and described the essential role parents play in ensuring that their child receives a free appropriate public education (FAPE). The Court also refined the definition of a "free appropriate public education."


The Court explained that answering this question "...requires us to examine and explain the provisions of IDEA to determine if it accords to parents rights of their own that can be vindicated in court proceedings, or ... whether the Act allows them, in their status as parents, to represent their child in court proceedings."


Do Parents Have "Independent, Enforceable Rights?"


To answer this question, the Court reviewed IDEA, considered "the entire statutory scheme," and provided a comprehensive description of parental rights in the IDEA statute.


"The goals of IDEA include "ensuring that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education" and "ensuring that the rights of children with disabilities and parents of such children are protected." §1400(d)(1)(A)-(B)


The Court found that parents have a "significant role" and examined four critical portions of IDEA: IEP procedures; criteria to determine FAPE; procedural mechanisms for IEP disputes; and parental reimbursement.


The Court listed "terms that mandate or otherwise describe parental involvement."


"IDEA requires school districts to develop an IEP for each child with a disability with parents playing "a significant role" in this process." §§1412(a)(4), 1414(d)


"Parents serve as members of the team that develops the IEP." §1414(d)(1)(B)


"The "concerns" parents have "for enhancing the education of their child" must be considered by the team." § 1414(d)(3)(A)(ii)


"IDEA accords parents additional protections that apply through the IEP process."


The IEP team is required "to revise the IEP when appropriate to address certain information provided by the parents." § 1414(d)(4)(a)


States must "ensure that the parents are members of any group that makes decisions on the educational placement of their child." §1415(b)(1)


"A central purpose of the parental protections is to facilitate the provision of a 'free appropriate public education which must be made available to the child "in conformity with the [IEP]'" §1401(9)(D)


Sandee and Jeff Winkelman sued the Parma Ohio School District on behalf of Jacob, their son with autism.

Disputes and Differences


"When a party objects to the adequacy of the education provided " the IEP, or some related matter, IDEA provides procedural recourse ...  any party can present a complaint" about the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child, or the provision of a free appropriate public education to such child." §1415(b)(6)


The process begins with a meeting "where the parents of the child discuss their complaint" and the school district "is provided with the opportunity to [reach a resolution]." §1415(f)(1)(B)(i)(IV) If the school district "has not resolved the complaint to the satisfaction of the parent within 30 days," the parents may request a due process hearing. §1415(f)(1)(B)(ii)


"The statute sets out procedures for resolving disputes ...that... contemplates parents will be the parties bringing the administrative complaints."


States are required to "develop a model form to assist parents in filing a complaint." §1415(b)(8)


The Court found that "... the Act does not ... bar parents from seeking to vindicate the rights accorded to them once the time comes to file a civil action. Through its provisions for expansive review and extensive parental involvement, the statute leads to just the opposite result."


Purposes of IDEA


"IDEA defines one of its purposes as seeking 'to ensure that the rights of children with disabilities and the parents of such children are protected.' §1400(d)(1)(B) The word 'rights' in the quoted language refers to the rights of parents as well as the rights of the child..."


"We interpret the statute's references to parents' rights to mean what they say: that IDEA includes provisions conveying rights to parents as well as to children."


Structure of the IDEA Statute


The IEP process entitles parents to participate "in the substantive formulation of their child's educational program."

"IDEA requires the IEP team, which includes the parents as members, to take into account any 'concerns' parents have 'for enhancing the education of their child' when they formulate the IEP." §1414(d)(3)(A)(ii)


"The statute empowers parents to bring challenges brought on a broad range of issues." §1415(b)(6)(A)


The Court concluded "These provisions confirm that IDEA ... creates in parents an independent stake ... in the substantive decisions to be made."


Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)


In a departure from the minimal standards enumerated in Rowley (1982) 35 years ago, the Court updated the definition of a free appropriate public education (FAPE):


"The Act defines a 'free appropriate public education' pursuant to an IEP to be an educational instruction 'specially designed ... to meet the unique needs of the child with a disability,'§1401(29), coupled with any additional 'related services' that are "required to assist a child with a disability to benefit from [that instruction]" §1401(26)(A). See also §1401(9)


Potential for Injustice


The Court noted that if they accepted the ruling by the Court of Appeals that parental rights are limited, this would leave "some parents without a remedy."


"The potential for injustice in this result is apparent ... we find nothing in the statute to indicate that Congress ... intended that only some parents would be able to enforce the mandate. The statute instead takes pain to 'ensure that the rights of children with disabilities and parents of such children are protected.'" §1400(d)(1)(B)


Court of Appeals Erred: Parents Have Independent Enforceable Rights


"We conclude that IDEA grants parents independent, enforceable rights. These rights, which are not limited to certain procedural and reimbursement-related matters, encompass the entitlement to a free appropriate public education for the parents' child."


"The Court of Appeals erred when it dismissed the Winkelman's appeal for lack of counsel. Parents enjoy rights under IDEA... they are ... entitled to prosecute IDEA claims on their own behalf. The decision by Congress to grant parents these rights was consistent with the purpose of IDEA and fully in accord with our social and legal traditions ... It is beyond dispute that the relationship between a parent and child is sufficient to support a legally cognizable interest in the education of one's child..."


What is the Significance of Winkelman?


Since the Supreme Court's decision in my Florence County School District IV v. Shannon Carter case (1993), the Court has not focused on the purpose of IDEA, the parental role, or the criteria for determining if a child received an appropriate education.


The decision in Garret F. (1999) focused on the child's need for related services, including continuous one-on-one nursing services, in order to attend school and receive an appropriate education.


The decision in Schaffer (2005) held that the burden of proof in a due process hearing is on the party who challenges an IEP.


The decision in Arlington (2006) held that parents are not entitled to recover expert witness fees in special education litigation.


The Pendulum Swings


In all areas of law, judicial decisions swing back and forth over time, like a pendulum. Criminal law practitioners see this in rulings on search and seizure and Miranda warnings, and variations in state and federal courts.


Over time, special education litigation experiences the same swings and shifts.


The decision in Carter was a 9-0 pro-parent, pro-child decision issued 34 days after oral argument.


Garret F. was 7-2 pro-child decision issued 4 months after oral argument.


Schaffer was 6-2 pro-school decision issued 5 weeks after oral argument.


Murphy was 6-3 pro-school decision issued 9 weeks after oral argument.


Winkelman is a 9-0 pro-parent, pro-child decision issued nearly 3 months after oral argument.


In Winkelman, Justice Kennedy, writing for the other Justices, returned to the roots of IDEA. Special education is "educational instruction 'specially designed . . . to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability,'§1401(29), coupled with any additional 'related services' that are 'required to assist a child with a disability to benefit from [that instruction]' in order to provide a child with "independent living, and economic self-sufficiency..."

Listen to the Oral Argument (MP3 download) Listen to Justice Anthony M. Kennedy read the decision.

With the Winkelman decision, the pendulum is swinging back to protect parents and their children with disabilities.


Our hats are off to Jeff and Sandee Winkelman and their attorney, Jean Claude Andre of the Ivey, Smith and Ramirez law firm.


We want to thank attorney Andrew K. Cuddy of New York who is representing Jeff and Sandee Winkelman in their current due process hearing. At last report earlier this month, that due process hearing was in the eleventh day.




[1] In High court rules in favor of special-ed parents, the Los Angeles Times reported that the decision was a unanimous ruling in favor of the parents and child.


Justice Scalia, joined by Justice Thomas, filed a separate Opinion concurring with the ruling, but dissenting about whether the "right to an education" is a right of the parent and child, or is limited to the child. He wrote, "Petitioners sought reimbursement, alleged procedural violations, and requested a declaration that their child's FAPE was substantively inadequate ... I agree with the Court that they may proceed pro se with respect to the first two claims, but I disagree that they may do so with respect to the third."


This dissent is of minimal significance for two reasons. First, if a parent is to obtain reimbursement, which Justice Scalia agrees they can do on their own behalf, they must prove that their child's education was "substantively inadequate." Thus, the issue is moot. Second, if the limited portion of his Opinion is viewed as a dissent, it is a dissent on a very limited aspect of one minor portion of a majority ruling on behalf of parents and children.


Wrightslaw Note


In the Opinion, the Court referenced the Congressional Findings in Section 1400(c) of IDEA, IEPs in Section 1414, procedural safeguards in Section 1415 of the IDEA statute. All sections cited by the Court in this decision are in Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, 2nd Edition. The book includes the complete text of the statute with analysis and commentary, and all special education decisions from the Supreme Court until the decision in Winkelman.


Findings and Purposes in Section 1400 begin on page 45. The definition of 'special education' is in Section 1401(29) on page 55. The law about evaluations in Section 1414(a-c) is on page 92. The IEP statute in Section 1414(d) begins on page 99. The law about Procedural Safeguards is in Section 1415 which begins on page 107.


Other Resources


Jacob Winkelman, et al. v. Parma Schools - Background, Question Presented, Links to Briefs and Other Decisions


Can You Represent Your Child's Rights Under IDEA? by Peter W. D. Wright and Pamela Wright


Government urges review of parents' IDEA role

Created: 05/22/07
Revised: 00/00/00


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