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Excerpts From Unanimous Ruling in Private-Placement Case

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Following are excerpts from the U.S. Supreme Court's unanimous opinion in Florence County School District 4 v. Carter.

JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (I.D.E.A.) requires States to provide disabled children with a "free appropriate public education,'' [20 U.S.C.] Section 1401(a)(18). This case presents the question whether a court may order reimbursement for parents who unilaterally withdraw their child from a public school that provides an inappropriate education under I.D.E.A. and put the child in a private school that provides an education that is otherwise proper under I.D.E.A., but does not meet all the requirements of Section 1401(a)(18). We hold that the court may order such reimbursement, and therefore affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals. ...

In School Committee of Burlington v. Department of Education of Massachusetts (1985), we held that I.D.E.A.'s grant of equitable authority empowers a court "to order school authorities to reimburse parents for their expenditures on private special education for a child if the court ultimately determines that such placement, rather than a proposed [individualized education program], is proper under the Act.'' Congress intended that I.D.E.A.'s promise of a "free appropriate public education'' for disabled children would normally be met by an I.E.P.'s provision for education in the regular public schools or in private schools chosen jointly by school officials and parents. In cases where cooperation fails, however, "parents who disagree with the proposed I.E.P. are faced with a choice: go along with the I.E.P. to the detriment of their child if it turns out to be inappropriate or pay for what they consider to be the appropriate placement.'' For parents willing and able to make the latter choice, "it would be an empty victory to have a court tell them several years later that they were right but that these expenditures could not in a proper case be reimbursed by the school officials.'' Because such a result would be contrary to I.D.E.A.'s guarantee of a "free appropriate public education,'' we held that "Congress meant to include retroactive reimbursement to parents as an available remedy in a proper case.''

As this case comes to us, two issues are settled: 1) the school district's proposed I.E.P. was inappropriate under I.D.E.A., and 2) although Trident did not meet the Section 1401(a)(18) requirements, it provided an education otherwise proper under I.D.E.A. This case presents the narrow question whether Shannon's parents are barred from reimbursement because the private school in which Shannon enrolled did not meet the Section 1401(a)(18) definition of a "free appropriate public education.'' We hold that they are not, because Section 1401(a)(18)'s requirements cannot be read as applying to parental placements. ...

Nor do we believe that reimbursement is necessarily barred by a private school's failure to meet state education standards. Trident's deficiencies, according to the school district, were that it employed at least two faculty members who were not state-certified and that it did not develop I.E.P.'s. As we have noted, however, the Section 1401(a)(18) requirements--including the requirement that the school meet the standards of the state educational agency--do not apply to private parental placements. Indeed, the school district's emphasis on state standards is somewhat ironic. As the Court of Appeals noted, "it hardly seems consistent with the Act's goals 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.'' Accordingly, we disagree with the Second Circuit's theory that "a parent may not obtain reimbursement for a unilateral placement if that placement was in a school that was not on [the State's] approved list of private'' schools. Parents' failure to select a program known to be approved by the State in favor of an unapproved option is not itself a bar to reimbursement.

Furthermore, although the absence of an approved list of private schools is not essential to our holding, we note that 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. ...

The school district also claims that allowing reimbursement for parents such as Shannon's puts an unreasonable burden on financially strapped local educational authorities. The school district argues that requiring parents to choose a state-approved private school if they want reimbursement is the only meaningful way to allow States to control costs; otherwise States will have to reimburse dissatisfied parents for any private school that provides an education that is proper under the Act, no matter how expensive it may be.

There is no doubt that Congress has imposed a significant financial burden on States and school districts that participate in I.D.E.A. Yet public educational authorities who want to avoid reimbursing parents for the private education of a disabled child can do one of two things: give the child 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.

Moreover, parents who, like Shannon's, "unilaterally change their child's placement during the pendency of review proceedings, without the consent of the state or local school officials, do so at their own financial risk.'' Burlington. They are entitled to reimbursement only if a federal court concludes both that the public placement violated I.D.E.A., and that the private school placement was proper under the Act. ...

Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals. So ordered.

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