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Justices Question District Decision in Private-Placement Case

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WASHINGTON--Several Justices appeared skeptical of a South Carolina school district's argument that it should not have to pay for the private education of a learning-disabled child as the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments last week in a closely watched case concerning private special-education placements.

Donald B. Ayer, the lawyer for Florence County School District 4 in Timmonsville, S.C., told the High Court that parents of children with disabilities should try harder to work with educators to develop an appropriate plan for educating the children in public schools.

And when disputes arise under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, he said, parents who hope to be reimbursed with public funds have an obligation to consult with state education officials to insure that the private school they choose meets state standards.

"We are going to have a lot of [private school] placements at state and federal expense'' if parents do not have to worry about selecting state-approved schools, he said.

But lawyers for the U.S. Justice Department and the parents of the learning-disabled child at the center of the case argued that the reimbursement the family won in lower federal courts for the girl's three years at a private school was proper.

"Under the [I.D.E.A.], a judge is allowed to award any remedy he deems appropriate,'' said Amy L. Wax, an assistant U.S. solicitor general. "Anytime you set up a requirement that parents have to consult a list, it comes at a cost.''

Parents and District Clash

The case of Florence County School District 4 v. Carter (Case No. 91-1523) is being watched carefully by school board and state government groups concerned about the increasing number and expense of private special-education placements.

Under previous High Court rulings, parents of children with disabilities who disagree with a district's education plan for their child may "unilaterally'' place him in a private school and be reimbursed for the expense if the courts later agree that the district's plan was inadequate and the private school provided an appropriate education.

The South Carolina case concerns Shannon Carter, whose parents placed her in a private school for learning-disabled children after clashing with school officials over the best way to address her dyslexia and attention-deficit disorder. (See Education Week, Oct. 6, 1993).

Two lower federal courts agreed that the school district should reimburse the Carters for Shannon's private school expenses, finding that the school district failed to provide her a "free appropriate public education'' as defined by the I.D.E.A.

The district appealed to the Supreme Court, arguing that, because Trident Academy, the private school chosen by the Carters, was not approved by state officials for special-education placements, and because it did not meet all the regulations of the I.D.E.A., the district should not have to reimburse the family for $35,000 in tuition and expenses.

Raising Questions

Several Justices, however, sharply questioned the district's lawyer about that argument.

Associate Justice David H. Souter suggested that the I.D.E.A.'s complex rules are not meant to limit parents' choice of schools but to insure that disabled students are treated fairly.

"Isn't the purpose [of the law] to make sure that kids with disabilities don't get stuck down in some second-class status?'' he asked.

Associate Justice Antonin Scalia said the fact that parents who unilaterally place their child in a private school are not guaranteed reimbursement serves as a check against a proliferation of such cases.

"That's a big risk for the parents,'' he said.

Associate Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wondered what the Carters should have done differently.

"In this case, there was no list [of approved private schools] provided by public school authorities,'' she noted.

Mr. Ayer, the lawyer for the district, suggested that, in the absence of a list of approved schools, parents should check with authorities to determine whether a school meets state standards.

"We would have a different case here if the parents went to authorities and got no answer,'' he said.

Ms. Wax of the Justice Department said districts usually have "the upper hand'' in special-education disputes and requiring parents to consult authorities about a private school placement "creates tremendous obstacles to their receiving relief.''

But at least two Justices expressed concern about the potential costs to the taxpayers of private school placements.

Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wondered whether the courts would have to reimburse parents if they chose "a Cadillac situation,'' such as a private school that charged tuition double that of others in the community.

"Are there any cautionary concerns here?'' she asked Ms. Wax, who said that the courts could limit reimbursement to a basic level.

Justice Ginsburg called the $35,000 price tag for Shannon Carter's three years at Trident Academy "quite expensive,'' adding that "it is an expense to the state we multiply many times'' in future cases if the Court rules in favor of the Carters.

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