Jennifer Roback Morse

School districts around the country breathed a sigh of relief last week when the Supreme Court ruled on an arcane dispute involving the federal government’s mandate for special education students. Under federal law, public schools are required to provide a “free, appropriate public education” to all students, regardless of disability. The dispute concerned which party, the school or the family, has the burden of proof in showing whether the plan is appropriate. Schools could see lots of dollars flying out their windows if parents could demand better services. But hidden in this case is a clue to a better solution. Since both sides are dissatisfied with the current system of satisfying the federal requirement to serve disabled students, there is room for a change that makes both parties better off.

I sympathize with both sides in this case. As a fiscal conservative, I understand the position of the Montgomery County School District. They are required by Federal law to provide individualized services for all disabled students. The Federal government provides some money to meet this requirement, but nowhere near the full cost. An Individualized Education Plan, or IEP, as required for disabled students, can be appealing to a smart parent with a difficult child. From the school’s perspective, every parent who pops up with a disabled kid is a net drain. If the Court had ruled that an “appropriate” education means whatever the parents say it means, the schools’ fiscal burden would be greatly increased.

At the same time, I sympathize with the parents.  I am a veteran of many years worth of IEP’s, going back to 1991, with the arrival of my first child.  In the years since, I have also had several foster children go through the IEP process. I admire the anonymous wag who wrote a bit of doggerel in the style of Dr. Seuss, “I do not like these I-E-Ps. I do not like them, Geez-louise. I do not like them here or there. I do not like them anywhere.”

The school has to ration expensive special education services in some way. The school acts as a gatekeeper toward the parents, and not just toward parents who are trying to game the system. The schools have every incentive to make it hard for kids to qualify, even those who really are disabled. If the child does qualify, the school has every incentive to meet the federal requirement at least cost to itself. The schools have a tendency to put the child into the programs they have, even if those programs are not really suitable.

Jennifer Roback Morse

Jennifer Roback Morse, Ph.D., is the author of Smart Sex: Finding Life-long Love In A Hook-up World. She blogs at

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