U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin says many parents are discouraged from pursuing special education disputes because they can't currently recover hefty expert witness fees often associated with such cases. (Thinkstock)

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin says many parents are discouraged from pursuing special education disputes because they can’t currently recover hefty expert witness fees often associated with such cases. (Thinkstock)

A federal lawmaker says he wants to level the playing field for parents involved in special education disputes with their child’s school district.

U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, is proposing new legislation that would ensure parents who successfully challenge a school district under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act can recoup costs for psychologists, behavior specialists, physicians and other experts they engage in order to bring their case.

Currently, families can challenge schools if they do not believe that their child is being provided a free and appropriate education under the law. While attorney’s fees can be recovered by whomever prevails, a 2006 U.S. Supreme Court decision determined that costs for expert witnesses can’t.

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That puts parents at a disadvantage, Harkin said, since school districts often have experts on staff while families typically must incur significant costs — ranging from $100 to $300 per hour, on average — to retain such services.

Under the senator’s IDEA Fairness Restoration Act, expert witness fees as well as costs for any tests or evaluations needed for a due process case would be classified just like attorney’s fees, allowing parents to recover their expenses in instances where they win.

“Without access to expert witnesses, families may be unable to make an argument for the educational needs of their children,” Harkin said. “This legislation is an essential step for protecting the rights of students with disabilities and ensuring that all families, regardless of their financial resources, can advocate for and protect their children’s rights through due process, consistent with congressional intent.”

Separately, Harkin also introduced legislation this week calling for the federal government to fully fund IDEA by 2023. Under the senator’s plan, federal funding would increase gradually until reaching the 40 percent threshold that the government initially committed to when IDEA was first enacted in 1975.

Harkin wants to pay for the increase in special education funding by hiking income taxes for those earning more than $1 million annually.