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Unpublished Paper
A Better IDEA: An Empirial Study of Remedies in Public Impact Litigation for Students with Disabilities
ExpressO (2011)
  • Kathleen G. Noonan, University of Wisconsin - Madison
This paper presents an empirical study of class action lawsuits against school systems under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). IDEA requires that students with disabilities receive a “free and appropriate education” in the “least restrictive environment.” Plaintiff classes of children have sued school districts for procedural and substantive failures related to these guarantees. Surprisingly, these suits have less typically addressed academic outcomes for children with disabilities and best practices with regard to educational interventions. This paper catalogues and analyzes every class action lawsuit in the ten largest, urban school districts since 1990 to identify the types of remedies typically sought and in particular whether and how suits and settlements addressed academic outcomes and best practices, both new requirements of the 2004 reauthorization of IDEA. We find that most settlements required increased data reporting, staff training and student supports, but few directly addressed student outcomes or required the use of evidence-based practices. Education law scholarship tends to focus on equality and access issues for children with disabilities. While clearly important, this work tends to ignore the efficacy of class actions suits in gaining these or any other outcomes for children with disabilities. More recent scholarship on the broader issues of public impact litigation has explored the changing nature of decrees from compliance-driven, “command and control” decrees to “experimentalist intervention” that allow for more flexible, outcomes-oriented remedies. That scholarship has not, however examined in detail to what extent remedies in the special education context reflect this shift. This paper fills those gaps. It reports an empirical, interdisciplinary study that provides insight into the types of remedies that result from settlement agreements in special education lawsuits. Importantly, despite federal requirements related to academic outcomes and best practice, settlements in this area still emphasize prescriptive remedies. We also highlight an important disconnect between the lawyers who negotiate settlement agreements and the educational experts (practitioners, advocates and researchers) who study and implement best practice and improved outcomes. Without better collaboration between law and social science, the remedies that each seeks will fall short of their desired impact.
  • Consent decrees,
  • Disabilities education act,
  • education law,
  • new governance,
  • outcomes-based assessment
Publication Date
April 6, 2011
Citation Information
Kathleen G. Noonan. "A Better IDEA: An Empirial Study of Remedies in Public Impact Litigation for Students with Disabilities" ExpressO (2011)
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