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Administration Views on Spec.-Ed. Placements Sought

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WASHINGTON--The U.S. Supreme Court last week asked the Bush Administration for its views on whether public-school districts can be forced to pay for special-education placements in unaccredited private schools chosen by parents.

The National School Boards Association and nine states have joined the Florence County, S.C., school district in asking the High Court to overturn lower-court rulings in the case. The district was forced to reimburse parents who placed their learning-disabled child in an unapproved private school after a dispute over her individualized education program.

The N.S.B.A. warned that the rulings in the South Carolina case and others have encouraged more parents of children with disabilities to seek private-school placements at public expense, thus draining tax dollars from special-education services.

The case is another example of "courts giving parents a veto power over the placement of their child,'' the N.S.B.A. said in court papers.

In a brief order on May 18, the High Court asked the U.S. Solicitor General to give the views of the federal government in Florence County School District v. Carter (Case No. 91-1523). The request is an indication that the Justices are interested in taking the case, but that before deciding whether to do so they would like to know the Administration's views on the federal law involved--the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, or I.D.E.A.

Under a 1985 High Court ruling in Burlington School Committee v. Massachussetts Department of Education, parents who are dissatisfied with the individualized education program for their child may "unilaterally'' place the child in a private school and are entitled to tuition reimbursement if it is ultimately determined that the public-school education was inappropriate.

The critical issue in the South Carolina case is whether such reimbursements are required when parents choose private schools that do not meet state standards or are not approved for special-education placements.

The case involves a young woman who was diagnosed as learning-disabled in 1985 by Florence County school officials.

The parents challenged her individualized program in federal court while they enrolled her in a private school for children with learning disabilities.

A U.S. district judge later ruled that the school district had failed to provide the girl with a free, appropriate education under the I.D.E.A. and that the private school had offered her an appropriate education, based on her progress there. The judge ordered that her parents be reimbursed more than $35,000 for three years' expenses.

A panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit that included retired Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. last year ruled that the I.D.E.A. does not require parents to choose a state-approved institution.

Tax-Refund Case Accepted

In separate action, the High Court last week agreed to decide whether states must give refunds for taxes they collected that were later found to be unconstitutional.

The question is a high-stakes one for states such as Virginia, which may be forced to refund millions of dollars to federal retirees if the High Court rules against it in Harper v. Virginia Department of Taxation (No. 91-794).

Virginia and numerous other states once treated public-employee pension income disparately, taxing federal retirees but exempting retired state- and local-government workers. That practice was ruled unconstitutional by the High Court in 1989, but the question of whether refunds of the illegal tax were required was left open. (See Education Week, April 29, 1992.)

The total liability for states if they must refund such taxes has been estimated by state groups at more than $2 billion.

Virginia, with the largest number of federal retirees of any state, would face the largest refund bill for the illegal taxes--an estimated $440 million. If they lose the case, state officials say, "there will be proportionately less money for the state's public-school system, for law enforcement and corrections, for social programs, and for a wide variety of other state services.''

The case will be argued during the next term.

Unemployment Compensation

Also last week, the High Court let stand a ruling by New York's highest court that state labor law may exempt religious schools from contributing to the unemployment-insurance system.

New York's labor law was challenged by a former English teacher at a Jewish high school in New York City, who was denied unemployment compensation after she lost her job.

The New York Court of Appeals ruled last year that the exemption for religious institutions does not violate the U.S. Constitution's ban against government establishment of religion. The court said that the law was enacted with a secular purpose and that it reflected a tradition of sparing nonprofit organizations from general taxation. The case was Klein v. Hartnett (No. 91-1479).

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