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Getting Their Due (Process): Parents and Lawyers in Special Education Due Process Hearings in Pennsylvania

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires school districts to provide a free appropriate public education to all students, regardless of physical or mental disability. To that end, thousands of parents and students enter the special education due process system created by state governments under IDEA each year to compel districts to provide the services required by statute. All parents and students have the right to hire a lawyer to help them navigate the complicated administrative regime, though not all have the ability to do so. But many critics of IDEA due process argue that the presence of lawyers slows the process unnecessarily and damages the relationship between families and school districts.

Through a combination of empirical analysis of five years of Pennsylvania special education hearing officer decisions and interviews with private special education lawyers, this Comment examines the role of counsel in IDEA due process. Parents and students with counsel were significantly more likely to obtain substantive relief through due process than those proceeding pro se. Yet, at least some pro se parents still had viable claims and a few were able to successfully obtain favorable decisions from hearing officers, without the assistance of counsel.

This Comment evaluates proposed alternatives to the due process system as constructed, including alternative non-adversarial dispute resolution mechanisms, in light of the empirical data from Pennsylvania. The data suggests that special education due process, in Pennsylvania at least, is more stable and effective than many critics have argued and that greater access to counsel, not less adversarial alternatives, may be a better way to ensure compliance with the substantive requirements of IDEA.