The first problem with parental advocacy is that many parents do not know their rights under the IDEA and do not know that they can challenge decisions that are made by the IEP team.

Under the IDEA, schools have the responsibility to communicate with parents about their legal rights. They are expected “to provide understandable documents, to invite them to meet and ask questions, even to hold workshops or training sessions to inform parents.

However, this mandate appears to be more of an aspiration than a reality. Schools are not making these documents accessible to all parents, and for many parents without a formal education, these documents are difficult to interpret.

The second problem with parental advocacy is that most parents lack the educational knowledge to successfully challenge IEP decisions.

Although parents are equal team members under the IEP model, the balance of power in this relationship is significantly tipped towards the educators and service providers with knowledge about how the system works.

On one side of the table sit the professionals who may be trained in psychology, nursing, social work, medicine, specialized related services, and teaching. On the other side of the table sit the parents, who are not at the school every day and do not know about instructional practices.

Parents are placed at a disadvantage because they do not know when schools are in noncompliance with IEPs, when the IEPs are not resulting in academic progress, or what the best instructional practices are for their children’s disabilities.

Most teachers and school administrators view the IEP meeting conference as a time to disseminate information to the parent, rather than an opportunity to collaboratively plan the child’s education with parents as an equal member of the team.

When asked about the parent’s role on an IEP team, one school administrator commented: “They come to us for educational services and educational advice, based on our experience and knowledge of options, I would expect that they would follow what we have to say.”

This relationship is echoed by both parents and school officials but is contrary to the intention of the IDEA. Parents feel inadequate in making decisions about their child’s education because they lack knowledge about educational practices, supports, and services available to their child.

Parents lack power because they are outnumbered in the process and, often, are viewed as outsiders relative to the other team members. Because parents are the most interested in seeing their children make educational progress, other team members fear that they make unrealistic educational decisions for their children.

Often, because more is at stake for parents than for the other IEP team members, parents come across as nervous, anxious, or inarticulate. Parents fear that if they offend team members causing meetings to go poorly will result in fewer services for their children and as a result, greater academic failure for their child. Thus, parents are further perceived as less effective team members.

These negative interactions between parents and schools are widely reported across the country. In a survey of parent-administrator interactions, most parents described themselves as “terrified and inarticulate” when addressing school administrators.

The third problem with parental enforcement is that parents fear that the school will retaliate against their children for advocating or enforcing their rights through a compliance complaint or due process.

Moreover, parents fear advocating for FAPE for their children because they question their own authority to make educational decisions and they choose to respect the decisions of the educators.

In many communities, cultural norms place educators in positions of authority that remain unquestioned. Because parents do not perceive that they are equal members of the team, parents fear challenging the decisions of the educators.

One parent remarked, when discussing her role in the IEP process, “I don’t know if I have a choice [about my kid’s program], but then – to be honest with you – I’m kind of glad I don’t, because I don’t want to make the wrong one anyway. I’d rather have the choice left to somebody else. I’m so unschooled as far as the therapies and the teaching and whatnot. I don’t think I’m in a place to judge whether or not he’s receiving the right thing.”

This quote reflects many anxieties that parents feel when determining the right course for their child’s education. The parent does not know that she has a choice, she worries that she would make the wrong one, she feels unschooled, and she does not feel that it is her place to voice her opinions. These anxieties all pose significant barriers to parental advocacy and enforcement of the IDEA.

The fourth and final problem with parental advocacy is that, even when parents are able to overcome their anxieties, they are unable to find the legal support and advocacy that they need to be successful.

Parents who can afford legal representation have difficulty finding it because the majority of lawyers in private practice in the United States work in law firms that primarily represent school districts rather than the student.

Those lawyers who are willing to represent parents are often too expensive for the average American. The only way for parents to recover attorney fees is if the parent files for due process.

This does not give parents an option to obtain legal assistance in the IEP process and many parents are not comfortable or feel ready to file for a hearing. Although the IDEA allows parents to recover attorneys’ fees in due process, the prospect of recovery does not provide a strong incentive for attorneys because fees are only awarded to prevailing parties. The due process system is a weak mechanism for enforcement of the IDEA as long as these barriers exist.

Parental advocacy is weak across the country because parents do not know their rights under the IDEA, do not feel competent to be equal team members, have anxieties about bringing due process claims, and cannot get legal assistance.

These barriers, that have existed since the onset of IDEA, must be directly addressed in order to see enforcement for the provisions of the IDEA so that all children receive a FAPE. Because state and federal enforcement are ineffective, the burden remains upon parents to enforce the IDEA and face the many unlawful, discriminatory, and inhumane barriers set before them.

Parent training and parent advocacy is my specialty. If you are interested in becoming a stronger advocate for your child and gain knowledge about your rights under IDEA, Schedule a consultation here.

Here’s to your advocacy success!

Valerie Aprahamian


References: “Challenging Disparities in Special Education: Moving Parents from Disempowered Team Members to Ardent Advocates” Margaret M. Wakelin


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