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In Special-Ed. Case, Justices Back Parents

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Washington

A ruling last week by the U.S. Supreme Court makes it easier for parents of children with disabilities to win reimbursement for placing them in private schools when public schools fail to provide an appropriate education.

In a defeat for school districts and states, the High Court ruled unanimously that parents in such situations need not worry about whether their choice of private school is approved by state authorities or meets the standards of the main federal special-education law.

The Court rejected arguments from public education and government groups that it use the case of Florence County School District 4 v. Carter (Case No. 91-1523) to curb the growing number of "private placements'' of students with learning or physical disabilities. Such cases arise when parents not satisfied with the education plans devised for their children by public schools put them in private institutions and later sue for reimbursement of tuition and other expenses.

1985 Case Revisited

Writing for the High Court, Associate Justice Sandra Day O'Connor said school authorities are able to avoid the cost of reimbursing parents for private placements. To do so, she said, they must pay more attention to complying with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act's mandate to provide disabled children a "free appropriate public education in a public setting, or place the child in an appropriate private setting of the state's choice.''

"This is I.D.E.A.'s mandate, and school officials who conform to it need not worry about reimbursement claims,'' she wrote.

The question before the High Court in Florence County was a narrow but significant issue left open by a 1985 case. In the earlier case, the Court first allowed federal judges to order reimbursement for parents who "unilaterally'' place their disabled children in private schools after disputes with public school officials over an appropriate education plan.

In that case, School Committee of Burlington v. Department of Education of Massachusetts, the Court held that reimbursement was proper if the district failed to provide an appropriate education plan while the private school chosen by parents did provide such a plan.

Public education groups say the decision has led to a costly increase in the number of parents seeking public funding for the private education of disabled children.

In the Florence County case, the issue was whether reimbursement is proper when the private school chosen by parents does not meet state educational standards or does not follow the special-education guidelines in the I.D.E.A.

Public education groups and several states argued that the law's purpose would be undermined if reimbursements were not limited to schools that met state special-education standards.

Justice O'Connor, however, wrote that the school officials' "emphasis on state standards is somewhat ironic.''

It "hardly seems consistent'' with the goals of the I.D.E.A., she contended, "to forbid parents from educating their child at a school that provides an appropriate education simply because that school lacks the stamp of approval of the same public school system that failed to meet the child's needs in the first place.''

Parents Fight District

The High Court affirmed a ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in favor of Shannon Carter, now a 24-year-old community-college student in Timmonsville, S.C. (See Education Week, Oct. 6, 1993.)

While a 9th-grade student in Florence County in 1985, Ms. Carter was diagnosed with a learning disability that included dyslexia and attention-deficit disorder. At first, school officials wanted to place her in a "resource room'' that included retarded and emotionally disturbed students. Ms. Carter's parents objected to that placement, however, and called for her to receive special help several times a week.

Still unhappy with their dealings with district officials, the Carters placed their daughter at Trident Academy in Mount Pleasant, S.C., a school that specialized in learning disabilities but did not attempt to meet all federal and state special-education guidelines for public schools.

The Carters sued the district for reimbursement of the nearly $36,000 in tuition and expenses for their daughter's three years at the school. The family won its case in both the federal district and appeals courts, which ruled that the school system had failed to provide Shannon Carter with an appropriate education plan.

The district appealed to the Supreme Court on two grounds, arguing that it had provided an appropriate education for Ms. Carter and that her parents should not be reimbursed because Trident Academy was not approved for special-education placements.

The High Court agreed to hear the second issue to resolve a conflict between the Fourth Circuit Court's ruling and a 1989 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which found that a parental placement was not proper under the I.D.E.A. unless the private school met state special-education standards.

The High Court rejected the Second Circuit Court's approach, in part because "parents in the position of Shannon's have no way of knowing at the time they select a private school whether the school meets state standards.''

Costs a Worry for Districts

The reaction of public school groups to the decision was in keeping with their arguments before the Court--that private placements would grow and become more financially onerous if parents did not have to worry about choosing a state-approved school.

"It sends a terrible message,'' said Gwendolyn H. Gregory, the deputy general counsel of the National School Boards Association. "Although states and districts must go through all the procedural and substantive requirements of the I.D.E.A., the parents can just waltz into a school and, if their children graduate, they get their money.''

Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the ruling gives special-education parents "a blank check drawn on school districts.''

But Nancy McCormick, the general counsel of the South Carolina Protection and Advocacy System for the Handicapped, which helped represent Ms. Carter, said school officials' concerns were overstated.

"This is a limited expansion of Burlington,'' she said. "We hope it will be an incentive for local districts to identify students [with learning disabilities] in the first place, and then to provide an appropriate [individualized education plan]. This case doesn't change the standards that parents have to meet.''

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