A Boom in Education Litigation

THEORY TO PRACTICE, ISSUE NO. 3, FALL '11

Debunking a long held misperception, Perry Zirkel says the last 20 years of the 20th century were not an especially litigious time period for the educational community.

That changed rather quickly in 2001, says Zirkel, a renowned legal scholar from Lehigh University. After falling for more than two decades, the number of education lawsuits has risen again, driven largely by special education litigation in federal courts.

“Something happened that was unexpected,” Zirkel told Education Week in an article about the study. “Whether it’s signaling a lasting trend is unknown, but it’s raising a cautionary flag.”

His 2010 analysis—an update of previous decennial studies from 1989 and 1997—found that the overall level of K-12 education litigation has rebounded to a new high of 8,047 court decisions in the past decade. That may have to do with the sharp increase in federal court decisions, which jumped 60 percent to a total of 3,581.  

The previous high was more than 30 years ago in the 1970s, when courts handed down over 7,600 decisions. The number of lawsuits had dropped precipitously in the 1980s and 1990s.

Within the federal courts, special education cases ranged from 30 in the 1970s to 407 in the 1980s to 623 in the 1990s to 1,242 in the most recent decade, accounting for 35 percent of the education litigation in the federal courts.