Resource: The Complex Legacy of Jamie S.

By: Alan J. Borsuk

September 1, 2013

On the face of the matter, no one can doubt that the plaintiffs lost the Jamie S. case. More than a decade after a class action suit was filed challenging many aspects of how the Milwaukee Public Schools (MPS) system handled its obligations related to special education, Jamie S. et al. v. Milwaukee Public Schools et al. effectively ended in January 2012. That was when a decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit wiped out a string of victories for the plaintiffs before Magistrate Judge Aaron Goodstein in the federal district court in Milwaukee.

Even more generally, the Seventh Circuit opinion, combined with a June 2011 Supreme Court decision (Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. v. Dukes), means it is likely that Jamie S. already has played a significant role in ending a period in which class action challenges to special education systems in school districts around the United States were relatively frequent.

At the same time, the legacy of the Jamie S. case appears more complex. The litigation brought what can be called practical victories for the plaintiffs. In particular, improvements they sought in the systems and practices of the Milwaukee Public Schools came to pass. Indeed, every party involved in the issue agrees that MPS is doing better now than in 2001, when the case was launched, in complying with special education requirements. For more than a decade, the suit was a factor in shaping MPS policy. It continues to touch daily life for thousands of Milwaukee children. This may be one of those situations in which the impact of a lawsuit even on the parties cannot fully be measured by the final decision in court.