Senators Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) reintroduced a bill September 10 that would require school districts to reimburse parents for expenses undertaken to pay for psychologists, pediatricians and other experts when they prevail in special education due process hearings.
“This bill restores the initial intent of (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) to cover the costs of expert fees and examinations when schools are found to be not meeting their legal requirements to provide a free and appropriate public education for children with disabilities,” according to a bill summary released by the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee. “The Act would remove financial barriers in due process hearings, empowering parents to advocate for the education their children are guaranteed under IDEA.”
If passed, the bill, titled the IDEA Fairness Restoration Act of 2014, would directly overturn a controversial Supreme Court decision from 2006.
Under the IDEA, school districts must reimburse parents who prevail in special education due process hearings for “costs” associated with the litigation, such as attorney fees. However, in Arlington v. Murphy, the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that the phrase “costs,” though ambiguous in the IDEA, does not include “expert fees.”
In a vigorous dissent, Justices Breyer, Souter and Stevens argued that the decision ran contrary to the legislative intent of the IDEA.
Specifically, the dissenting justices pointed to the Conference Committee Report that accompanied the law, which stated that, “The conferees intend that the term ‘attorneys’ fees as part of the costs’ includes reasonable expenses and fees of expert witnesses and the reasonable costs of any test or evaluation which is found to be necessary for the preparation of the … case.”
Congressmen Chris Van Hollen (D-CT) and Pete Sessions (R-TX) introduced the first version of the IDEA Fairness Restoration Act in 2007. It has been introduced multiple times since in both the House of Representatives and the Senate.