Proposed bill could help ease money worries for parents of disabled students

A proposed federal bill could alleviate the financial burden for families who challenge schools on the education provided to their special-needs children.

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, has proposed legislation that would allow parents to recover costs for expert witnesses when they win in a case against a school district under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, according to a story by the Disability Scoop.

The act, referred to as IDEA, ensures children with disabilities have access to a free and appropriate education.

Harkin  — a lawmaker who has been a leader in disability rights for more than two decades — has co-sponsored two rounds of amendments to strengthen the act.

While attorney’s fees can be recovered by whomever prevails, a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision determined that costs for expert witnesses can’t.

That puts parents at a disadvantage, Harkin said, since school districts often have experts on staff while families typically must incur significant costs – ranging from $100 to $300 per hour, on average — to retain such services.

Expert witnesses often include psychologists, behavior specialists and physicians.

The proposed IDEA Fairness Restoration Act would mean families could recoup expenses not only for their testimony, but also for tests and evaluations, according to the story.

Students with disabilities get individualized education plans under IDEA. Families, school officials and teachers, as well as therapists and family doctors meet to determine children’s needs and goals.

If parents believe the school district is not providing the proper resources, like personal instruction or an individualized extended-school-year program, they can file a complaint.

“Without access to expert witnesses, families may be unable to make an argument for the educational needs of their children,” Harkin said. “This legislation is an essential step for protecting the rights of students with disabilities and ensuring that all families, regardless of their financial resources, can advocate for and protect their children’s rights through due process, consistent with congressional intent.”

Reach Halle Stockton at 412-315-0263 or hstockton@publicsource.org.