June 23, 2009
Court Affirms Reimbursement for Special Education
By TAMAR LEWIN
In a decision that could help disabled students obtain needed services and cost school districts millions of dollars, the Supreme Court ruled on Monday that parents of special-education students may seek government reimbursement for private school tuition, even if they have never received special-education services in public school.
The case before the court involved a struggling Oregon high school student, identified in court documents only as T. A., whose parents removed him from public school in the Forest Grove district in his junior year and enrolled him in a $5,200-a-month residential school.
Although Forest Grove officials had noticed T. A.’s difficulties and evaluated him for learning disabilities, he was found ineligible for special-education services. Only after he enrolled in the private school did doctors say T. A. had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other disabilities.
While most of the nation’s six million special-education students attend public school, as T. A. did for many years, thousands of families with disabled children, convinced that the public schools lack appropriate placements, avoid the public schools altogether. Instead, they enroll their children in expensive private schools for students with emotional or learning disabilities, and then seek reimbursement.
Nationally, about 90,000 special-education students are in private schools, most of them referred by their public schools.
In 2007-8, the New York City schools, which filed a friend-of-court brief supporting Forest Grove, paid $89 million in private-school tuition for disabled students whose parents had placed them there, up from $53 million two years earlier. In 2007-8, the city received 4,368 requests for reimbursement from parents who enrolled their children in private school; of those, more than half had not received services in public school.
The issue in the Forest Grove case was whether a 1997 amendment to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (or IDEA) prohibited private-school tuition reimbursement for students who never received special-education services in public school.
The amendment says tuition may be available for students with disabilities “who previously received special-education” services in public school, if the school did not make a free and appropriate public education (or FAPE) available in a timely manner.
Forest Grove, backed by school-boards associations across the country, argued that the amendment precluded reimbursement for those, like T. A., who never received special-education services in public school.
But the high court, in a 6-to-3 ruling, rejected that argument.
“We conclude that IDEA authorizes reimbursement for the cost of private special education services when a school district fails to provide a FAPE and the private school placement is appropriate, regardless of whether the child previously received special education or related services through the public school,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in the majority opinion.
Justice Stevens said the school district’s interpretation would produce a result “bordering on the irrational.”
“It would be strange for the act to provide a remedy, as all agree it does, where a school district offers a child inadequate special-education services but to leave parents without relief in the more egregious situation in which the school district unreasonably denies a child access to such services altogether,” he wrote.
In his dissent, Justice David H. Souter, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, said that the disabilities law was designed to promote cooperation between school districts and families in developing an individualized education plan for each disabled student. The dissent also discussed the high costs of private-school placements.
“Special education can be immensely expensive, amounting to tens of billions of dollars annually and as much as 20 percent of public schools’ general operating budgets,” Justice Souter wrote. “Given the burden of private school placement, it makes good sense to require parents to try to devise a satisfactory alternative within the public schools.”
The Supreme Court considered the issue of tuition reimbursement in a New York case two years ago, but split 4 to 4, with Justice Kennedy not taking part.