Monday, June 22, 2009

U.S. Supreme Court confirms that school districts may be liable for reimbursement when they fail to provide a free appropriate education

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a 6-3 opinion released today, has made it easier for parents of special education students to be reimbursed for the cost of private schooling for their children.

The lawsuit had been brought by a teenage boy from Oregon whose parents sought the court to force the public school district in which he lived to pay the $5,200/month it cost to educate him at the private school.

At the center of the case was IDEA, the federal law that requires all States receiving federal funding to provide a "free appropriate public education" (FAPE) to all children with disabilities residing in the State. It was clear that when a public school fails to provide a FAPE, and a child’s parents place the child in an appropriate private school without the school district’s consent, a court may require the district to reimburse the parents for the cost of the private education. However, the question before the Court was whether 1997 amendments to IDEA barred an action for reimbursement for private-education costs if a child had not “previously received special education and related services under the authority of a public agency." The Court held that it was not necessary for the child to have previously received special education and related services by the School District to be reimbursed for those services.

In this case, the child, T.A., had been educated in the same district from kindergarten through his junior year in high school. From kindergarten through eighth grade, the student's teachers had observed that he had trouble paying attention in class and completing his assignments. When he entered high school, his difficulties increased. Nonetheless, the school district repeatedly concluded that the student did not qualify for special services related to any learning disability. His parents finally removed him from public school and requested reimbursement from the school district for his education.

A hearing officer found that the parents were entitled to reimbursement; the U.S. District Court reversed, finding that IDEA did not provide such a remedy. However, the 9th District Court of Appeals reversed the District Court, finding reimbursement an appropriate remedy. Today's decision affirms that reimbursement may be an appropriate remedy when a public school district fails to provide a FAPE, and enrolling the student in private school is appropriate.

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