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Reducing Special Education Lawsuits May Mean Focusing on Certain States, Not IDEA

The fear of special education lawsuits has, over the years, prompted many organizations to suggest changes for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

But a recent study of special education-related court decisions suggests that reducing lawsuits may be a matter of focusing on a handful of states where most of them are filed—not the 40-year-old law itself.

Ten states are responsible for two-thirds of the IDEA court decisions made between 1979 and 2013, according to "Frequency Trends of Court Decisions Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act," a paper recently published in the Journal of Special Education Leadership. They are, in order of frequency of court decisions, New York, Pennsylvania, D.C., California, Illinois, New Jersey, Hawaii, Texas, Connecticut, and Virginia.

The study also looked at the court cases per capita, as this chart shows. The lineup of top states using that metric is slightly different, though some jurisdictions, such as D.C., Hawaii, and New York, show up as "active" states using both calculations. 

high_frequency_court_idea.JPG

In contrast, the lowest 10 states are responsible for just 2.4 percent of the IDEA-related court decisions filed between 1979 and 2013. They are Alaska, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Nevada, South Carolina, Idaho, South Dakota, Montana, Utah, Wyoming, and North Dakota. The paper also examined cases on a per-capita basis, and found that some populous states—Texas and Florida, for example—have a low number of court decisions considering how many students they have that are receiving special education services.

low_frequency_court_idea.JPG

The Journal is not online. The study findings were provided to Education Week by co-author Perry Zirkel, a professor of education and law at Lehigh University and an expert in special education law. Tessie Rose Bailey, an assistant professor of special education at the University of Montana Billings, was also a co-author. 

The findings echoed previous research by Zirkel that looked at due process hearings. He found that a small handful of states and jurisdictions are responsible for an outsized number of those hearings, which precede court action. 

The paper suggests that the states that are hotbeds of special education disputes should focus on improving their special education programs, as well as developing or expanding the use of alternative resolution procedures. Researchers should also try to determine what factors lead to a state being more litigious than another. 

But overall, the numbers would suggest more "tempered concern" is warranted, at least in the jurisdictions that are outside the top 10. For large parts of the country, "the case law frequency is largely more akin to the calm than the storm," the report says.

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