Monday, October 19, 2015

Top States for Special Ed Lawsuits

At Education Week, Christina Samuels reports on recent research showing which states find themselves most often in court over special education issues.

The paper, "Frequency Trends of Court Decisions Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act," was recently published in the Journal of Special Education Leadership. And it shows that ten states are responsible for almost two thirds of the lawsuits filed.

Let's go to the chart:

Note that some of the states have high total numbers, but don't crack the top ten in suits-per-capita. In other words, California has a huge number of lawsuits because it has a huge number of people. DC, on the other hand, is apparently is apparently doing its best to make sure that every special education student has her own personal lawsuit.

It's particularly in light of my piece yesterday that Pennsylvania ranks high both ways. Pennsylvania's parents have found ample reason to sue the state on behalf of their students with special needs, and Pennsylvania is now responding with a program that will insure that SWSN get even fewer resources. I suspect that the new initiative will not help Pennsylvania with its lawsuit problem; I don't think those several hundred lawsuits represent parents who wanted the state to offer their students less help and support.

The authors of the original paper suggest that this information shows that special education lawsuits are a local problem, not a national one, and that the frequency of such suits can best be addressed by looking at the state issues, not the federal ones. I would go a step further and suggest that these numbers indicate that something is spectacularly wrong in a handful of states.

Meanwhile, in Utah there were only 8 "decisions" over that 34 year period, with a per capita rate of 1.6. I suppose that the secret in low-lawsuit states is a set of terrible laws that give SWSN no legal protection and therefor not basis for going to court. It may also be that high-lawsuit states are extraordinarily deficient in avenues of recourse for parents other than dragging schools to court. In other words, Utah schools might just listen better than PA and NY systems.

Whatever the case, the data certainly suggest that something is going on in those top ten states, and it's probably not a good thing-- not good for the states, and not good for the families that end up feeling that court is their only recourse, and especially not good for the students whose needs are not being met while everybody is busy arguing in court instead of taking care of some of the state's most vulnerable students.


  1. all the states received "Dear Colleague " letters from Melody Musgrove ; they had to revamp their process to be in line with the feds. I haven't fully understood what Massachusetts is doing but it looks to me like they are going with portfolios? They think they have "fixed" the problem and are in compliance with federal dictates. We will see… there could be more law suits…. this listing of states could grow….

  2. In NJ, parents get blamed for being too litigious (read: have too much money). As a parent advocate, I can tell you that's complete baloney. There aren't nearly enough parents willing to haul districts into court to get what their kids need.

  3. No, Utah just has really awful special education policies. You should see how much kids are mainstreamed with no resources here. That, along with enormous class sizes, making it very difficult to differentiate, makes the situation really bad. The hoops parents have to jump through to sue are ridiculous, and Utahns pride themselves on self-reliance, meaning that parents are loathe to sue.