updated 11/14/2005 9:06:28 PM ET 2005-11-15T02:06:28

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that parents who demand better special education programs for their children have the burden of proof in the challenges.

Retiring Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, writing for the 6-2 court, said that when parents challenge a program they have the burden in an administrative hearing of showing that the program is insufficient. If schools bring a complaint, the burden rests with them, O’Connor wrote.

The ruling is a loss for a Maryland family that contested the special education program designed for their son with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

The case required the court to interpret the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, which does not specifically say whether parents or schools have the burden of proof in disputes. The law covers more than 6 million students.

The Maryland family in the Supreme Court case had argued that when there are disagreements between schools and parents, education officials have better access to relevant facts and witnesses.

The Bush administration backed the Montgomery County, Md., school district which maintained that the extra requirement would be expensive for local schools.

Chief Justice John Roberts had recused himself from the case, because attorneys from his old law firm represented the school district in suburban Washington.

Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer wrote separate dissents.

“School districts are charged with responsibility to offer to each disabled child an individualized education program (IEP) suitable to the child’s special needs. The proponent of the IEP, it seems to me, is properly called upon to demonstrate its adequacy,” Ginsburg wrote.

O’Connor said the court was not ruling on a separate issue, whether states could set their own policies and put the burden on the school officials.

The case is Schaffer v. Weast, 04-698.

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