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Parents Could Be Repaid Fees From Special Ed Challenges

Parents of special needs students who successfully challenge their school districts over Individualized Education Programs could be reimbursed for fees paid to expert witnesses, under two bills introduced in Congress.

The legislation, if approved, would upend a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act does not authorize courts to make school districts pay the fees of experts when parents win IEP challenges in court.

The measure is sponsored in the Senate by Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who chairs the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, and in the House by Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat.

The bills, filed last week, are so new that their exact wording isn't yet online.

In 2006, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court ruling that found the Arlington Central school district in New York didn't have to pay $29,350 in expert fees for the services of an educational consultant hired by Pearl and Theodore Murphy. The Murphys won their lawsuit against the district, filed on behalf of their son, who has multiple disabilities.

Along with the 6-3 ruling came Justice Stephen Breyer's dissent. He noted that in nearly any challenge of IDEA by parents, it is a case of David vs. Goliath.

"The costs of experts may not make much of a dent in a school district's budget, as many of the experts they use in IDEA proceedings are already on the staff," he said. "But to parents, the award of costs may matter enormously. Without potential reimbursement, parents may well lack the services of experts entirely."

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