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U.S. Supreme Court Declines to Take Up Special Education Case

By Mark Walsh — May 18, 2015 3 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday followed the advice of President Barack Obama’s administration and declined to take up a case involving an important interpretation of federal special education law.

The court last fall had asked for the administration’s views in the case, Ridley School District v. D.R. (No. 13-1547). The administration came back this spring with a brief saying the case was not a good one for review by the justices.

The Pennsylvania school district, joined by several school groups, had asked the high court to interpret an aspect of the “stay-put” provision of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. That provision means a child stays in his or her current educational placement during administrative and legal proceedings over a disputed education plan. That often can mean the child will stay in a private school placement, with a public school district footing the bill during lengthy proceedings.

The question in Ridley was whether the stay-put requirement ends when a state or federal trial court issues a final judgment in a dispute, or whether the provision continues until all court appeals are exhausted. The federal courts of appeals are divided over that issue, with school districts in some places facing higher bills for private schooling of students where the stay-put provision has been ruled to stay in force during what are often lengthy appeals.

The question arose in the case of an elementary school student with multiple learning disabilities whose parents enrolled her in a private school after a dispute over the child’s individualized education program, or IEP. Because a hearing officer ruled in the family’s favor at one point, the private school became the child’s stay-put placement.

A federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, ultimately ruled for the Ridley school district that the child’s public school IEP was appropriate. But in a separate action, a federal district court and the 3rd Circuit court said the school district was obligated to pay for the child’s private school placement through the time of the first appellate decision in the case.

The school district appealed the reimbursement ruling to the Supreme Court, which asked the administration for its views.

In an April 10 brief filed by U.S. Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli Jr., the federal government said the lower court rulings were correct and were required by regulations issued by the U.S. Department of Education.

The appeals court ruling “is consistent with the IDEA’s goal of providing stability for children with disabilities until there is a final resolution of a legal dispute over their educational placement,” says the administration’s brief, which was also signed by Education Department lawyers.

“If the stay-put provision terminated after a district court decision and while an appeal was pending, parents would be faced with the untenable choice of either (1) removing their child from a private school that the court of appeals ultimately might find appropriate, or (2) risking being responsible for the cost of the private school for the duration of the appeal,” the solicitor general’s brief said.

The Ridley district had been joined by the National School Boards Association and the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, which had filed a friend-of-the-court brief arguing that the stay-put provision should only remain in force through trial court proceedings.

“The 3rd Circuit’s extension of school districts’ obligations to pay for private school placements while stay-put continues through litigation—including appeals of trial court rulings in a school district’s favor—creates a perverse incentive for parents to prolong appeals simply to reap the benefit of private school tuition funded by public dollars,” the school groups’ brief says.

The justices denied review on May 18 in a brief, one-sentence order without any recorded dissent.

A version of this news article first appeared in The School Law Blog.