What the Jamie S. decision means

Last Friday came news that the 7th Circuit US Court of Appeals sided with the Milwaukee Public Schools in the long-running case–called the “Jamie S.” lawsuit – brought against MPS and the state Department of Public Instruction by Disability Rights Wisconsin.  We published here the press release from MPS, but it’s worth taking a few paragraphs to game out what the decision means, practically, to MPS classrooms and students.

I wrote about the implications of the case, cursorily, a couple of years ago. But some more background is worth repeating.  (The decision itself, available as a pdf from the court, does a good job of fully elaborating the history if you have the time.) The complaint was filed in 2001 by DRW, an advocacy group, claiming that students in MPS who were eligible for special education were not being identified, tested, and served either at all or in a timely fashion as required by state and federal law.

The complainants attempted to incorporate as a class, and the judge hearing the case finally settled on a palatable class definition:

Those students eligible for special education services from the Milwaukee Public School System who are, have been or will be either denied or delayed entry or participation in the processes which result in a properly constituted meeting between the IEP team and the parents or guardians of the student.

After years, literally years, of litigation, including expert testimony from a UW-Whitewater professor who reviewed case files from MPS special education students to identify patterns of failure on the part of MPS, the judge ruled in favor of the class in 2007. MPS appealed the decision; DPI decided to settle.

Last week’s decision vacated that settlement between DPI and DRW, mostly by saying that the class, as defined by the original trial court, was too broad and vaguely defined to meet  the guidelines established by law and refined by the US Supreme Court’s decision in last year’s controversial Wal-Mart case. No class, no class-action lawsuit and no settlement.

But DPI was committed to its settlement, and therein lay trouble:  DPI wrote the terms of the Jamie S. settlement into the corrective action plan it prepared for MPS as part of No Child Left Behind enforcement.  As MPS is a district identified for improvement, DPI is required by the federal government to impose penalties and force action upon the district.

MPS and DPI butted heads here; because MPS was waiting on its appeal, it was not interested in implementing the corrective action ordered by the judge and subsequently by DPI.

Of course, MPS did start to overhaul its practice anyway, even as it was protesting.  Young students (and many older ones) are taking MAP screening tests three times a year.  RtI – response to intervention – is making its way into schools, too, as a strategy for dealing with students before they are so far behind they require special education services.  And there’s the whole spreading array of bureaucracy and oversight in special education: paperwork is up, IEP compliance is more tightly regulated.

(In the decision, the appeals court reserves some choice words for the expert testimony by the UW-Whitewater professor that originally defined the pattern of failure that guided the trial court and the settlement by DPI and, thus, classroom and systemic changes in MPS.  Though not part of the appeal, and thus not explicitly indicated by the decision’s wording, the appeals court suggests that her testimony failed to meet the federal standards for expert witness testimony and that, if the merits of the case were under review rather than the definition of the class, DRW and its expert witness might be on shaky ground. See pages 9-10 of the decision.)

MPS is unlikely to change any of that practice now. There’s been a lot of investment and those most committed to fighting the lawsuit on its merits, as opposed to on principle, have long since left the district.  (Only one Board member is still in office since 2001, and MPS is on its third superintendent since the suit was filed.)

What the Jamie S. decision last week means is two things:  One, MPS is no longer vulnerable to the suit, obviously; it no longer will need to seek out and compensate members of the class.

But two, and more importantly, MPS gains some leverage back against DPI.  MPS is still a district identified for improvement, but because DPI is no longer allowed to impose corrective action related to special education–the Court of Appeals noted that the law puts on the onus of creating a corrective action plan on the district, not the state education agency–MPS can push back against some of the oversight DPI has been demanding for the last several years.

All of this is pending further appeal by Disability Rights Wisconsin, of course.

Still, watch the relationship now between DPI and MPS; it’s going to get very interesting soon.

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