Federal law authorizes reimbursements for students receiving special education services in a private school, even when they never received such services from a public school district, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 22.
The justices ruled 6-3 in Forest Grove School District v. T.A. (Case No. 08-305) that 1997 amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act meant to rein in the costs of private school placements did not remove the power of hearing officers and federal judges to order such reimbursements under the proper circumstances.
“A reading of the act that left parents without an adequate remedy when a school district unreasonably failed to identify a child with disabilities would not comport with Congress’ acknowledgment of the paramount importance of properly identifying each child eligible for services,” Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority.
He was joined by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer, and Samuel A. Alito Jr.
Justice David H. Souter, in a dissent joined by Justices AntoninScalia and Clarence Thomas, warned that the decision could prove costly for districts.
“The more private placement there is, the higher the special education bill, a fact that lends urgency to the IDEA’s mandate of a collaborative process” in developing individualized education plans under the law, Justice Souter wrote.
The ruling has drawn criticism from some national groups worried about its impact.
“We think the court got it wrong,” said Michael D. Simpson, the assistant general counsel of the Washington-based National Education Association.
The court took up the same issue in 2007, in Board of Education of New York City v. Tom F., and deadlocked 4-4. Justice Kennedy had recused himself in that case for undisclosed reasons. (“Court Is Split on IDEA Private-Placement Case,” Oct. 17, 2007.)
The new case was from the 6,000-student Forest Grove, Ore., district. The district appealed a ruling in favor of parents who sent their son to a private school for children with behavioral and emotional problems, at a cost of $5,000 a month, some two years after a district evaluation had determined that the boy was ineligible for special education services.
A version of this article appeared in the July 15, 2009 edition of Education Week as Greater Latitude Allowed in Private School Tuitions for Spec. Ed. Placements