Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), first passed in 1975, American school districts are responsible to provide a "free and appropriate public education" to special-needs students. Due to resource constraints and lack of expertise, however, this system sometimes breaks down. At this point, parents looking to enforce their child's legal rights have a long and complicated road ahead of them.
Parents of limited means find it especially hard to navigate the complex environment of special education law; the American Bar Association estimates that 80% of families in the U.S. cannot afford effective legal representation when needed.
When parents get legal counsel, they often find themselves trapped in a culture of adversity with the schools under standard lawsuit procedures. Court costs are high on both sides, animosity grows between parents and schools, and the students denied access to education often suffer the most.
In the spring of 2000, the Governor's Council for Developmental Disabilities moved to address this urgent need in Iowa with a new initiative, Project Resolve, led by the Legal Center for Special Education (LCSE). Project Resolve aims to shift the focus back to the needs and outcomes of the students involved, without the lose-lose-lose approach of due process litigation. Unlike federal special education law, which only compensates parents who file suit, Project Resolve subsidizes legal assistance at conflict resolution stage.
Project Resolve has reduced the incidence and intensity of litigation while expanding access to effective counsel. The center offers reduced rates for its legal assistance and has not turned down any parents for their inability to pay. The group has been particularly effective in promoting state-sponsored mediation in special education, known as a "preappeal" because it can be requested without a pending lawsuit.
Through emphasizing credibility and trust, the Legal Center has brought parents and schools to a level playing field, where compliance with the law—not costly legal stunts—becomes paramount. Pre-appeal letters from the LCSE provide a strong legal argument of the parents' position and a review of similar settlement agreements to show that mediation is in both parties' best interests.
Before the mediation of a landmark case in Iowa, many of the state's school districts told parents that they would need to pay up to $7000 to test their children to see if they needed special accommodations while transitioning to post-secondary education. Now, as a result of the LCSE's intervention, all school districts in Iowa provide the testing.
In the two years before 2004, Project Resolve represented parents in 90 percent of special education cases in the state, while running on an annual budget that is less than the fee often awarded in just one case of protracted litigation. Even the Iowa Department of Education has been a strong supporter of the program, a clear indicator of the "win-win" nature of resolving conflict between schools and parents before protracted litigation.
Officials outside the state are starting to take note of the program's success. In 2003, the U.S. Congress funded Project Resolve as a national pilot project. It has also worked to encourage similar projects in other states, all of which are subject to the same federal special education law and face many of the same problems of resource scarcity and excessive litigation.