Supreme Court Rules In Favor Of Special Education Students

In a case pitting the family of a special needs high school student against the school district that had been ordered to pay the student’s hefty private school tuition, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, when schools do not appropriately identify and provide services to students with disabilities who require special education and related services, the student may be placed in a private school to meet the special education needs, and the school district may be responsible for reimbursing parents and legal guardians for the tuition to attend these schools. However, such reimbursement is not guaranteed; families still have to prove that reimbursement is an equitable remedy and fulfill other conditions. Forest Grove School District v. T.A., No. 08-305 (June 22, 2009).

T.A. attended public schools in the Forest Grove School District from the time he was in kindergarten through the winter of his junior year of high school. From kindergarten through eighth grade, T.A.’s teachers observed that he had trouble paying attention in class and completing his assignments. When T.A. entered high school, his difficulties increased. T.A. was evaluated by a school psychologist who, after interviewing him, examining his school records, and administering cognitive ability tests, concluded that T.A. did not need further testing for any learning disabilities or other health impairments, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). T.A.’s parents did not seek review of that decision, although a hearing examiner later found that the school district’s evaluation was legally inadequate because it failed to address all areas of suspected disability, including ADHD.

T.A.’s parents sought private professional advice. As a result, T.A. was diagnosed with ADHD and a number of disabilities related to learning and memory. Advised by the private specialist that T.A. would do best in a structured, residential learning environment, T.A.’s parents enrolled him at a private academy that focused on educating children with special needs. T.A.’s parents later sought reimbursement of the private academy’s charges from the school district. The school district refused to reimburse T.A.’s parents. The school district claimed that reimbursement of private school tuition was required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) only when a student received special education services in a public school which were later proven to be inadequate to meet the student’s needs. Since he had never been classified as needing special education (although the school district’s evaluation was later proven to be incorrect), T.A. had never received special education through the public schools. As a result, the school district argued that reimbursement was not required.

An administrative law judge ruled for the parents and ordered reimbursement, holding that the school district failed to provide an appropriate learning program for T.A. After the school district sought judicial review, a federal district court set aside the reimbursement award after finding that the IDEA categorically bars reimbursement of private school tuition for students who have not “previously received special education and related services under the authority of a public agency.” T.A.’s parents appealed. The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that the IDEA does not impose a categorical bar to reimbursement when a parent unilaterally places in private school a child who has not previously received special-education services through the public school.

The Supreme Court affirmed. The high court ruled that the IDEA permits tuition reimbursement even when the student had not been previously receiving special education services by the school district. The Court found that school districts are required to (1) appropriately identify students with disabilities that may be in need of special education and other services under the IDEA, and (2) provide education and services adequate to address the disabled student’s needs. Since the Forest Grove School District failed to identify T.A. as disabled because of a flawed evaluation which resulted in the district’s failure to provide needed special education services, the school district could not avoid the tuition reimbursement requirement under the IDEA by claiming that T.A. had never participated in the school district’s special education program.

An article in the June 24th edition of the Press of Atlantic City reported that advocates for disabled students in New Jersey said that the Supreme Court ruling will have very limited effect statewide because few parents can afford the cost of the private school while they litigate with the district. Private schools for the disabled can cost more than $50,000 a year in New Jersey.

About 13,000 New Jersey students, or 1 percent of all students, were placed in private schools for the disabled in 2008, according to state Department of Education data. But those placements are approved and funded by local school districts. Most of New Jersey’s more than 215,000 students with disabilities receive services in their local public school.