The U.S. Supreme Court won’t be resolving an important question about private school placements under federal special education law in its current term.
The justices announced last week that they would not take up an appeal from a school district in New York state, which could have served essentially as a substitute for a case on which the court tied earlier this month.
Both cases raised the question of whether federal law requires parents to give the public schools a try before they can place their children with disabilities in private schools and seek tuition reimbursement from the public system.
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, parents may remove their children from what they consider to be an inappropriate public school placement and enroll the child in a private school “unilaterally.” If a court later finds that the proper conditions have been met, it can award tuition reimbursement to the parents at public expense.
The court heard arguments Oct. 1 in an appeal from the New York City school system, which maintained that a 1997 amendment to the IDEA required that parents enroll their children in the public school placement worked out for them under the law’s procedures before the parents could be eligible for reimbursement for a private school placement.
But just days after the arguments, the justices deadlocked 4-4 in that case, Board of Education of New York City v. Tom F. (Case No. 06-637). Justice Anthony M. Kennedy had removed himself from participation. (“Justices Weigh IDEA Private Placements,” Oct. 10, 2007, and “Court Is Split on IDEA Private-Placement Case,” Oct. 17, 2007.)
The tie means the ruling in favor of a parent by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, in New York City, was affirmed without an opinion and without setting a national precedent.
While it was considering the merits of the Tom F. case, the court was holding on to an appeal from another district that raised the same legal issue about private school placements under the IDEA. As it turned out, Justice Kennedy apparently had a conflict of interest in that case as well, so granting review would have likely led to another 4-4 tie.
The court on Oct. 15 declined to hear the appeal in Board of Education of the Hyde Park Central School District v. Frank G. (No. 06-580). Justice Kennedy took no part in the consideration of that case, the court said in a brief order.
The 4,600-student Hyde Park district had sought review of a ruling that upheld reimbursement to the parents of a child with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. According to court papers, the parents had never enrolled their son in the public school system. After a disagreement over the district’s proposed education plan for the boy, the parents sought reimbursement for enrolling him in a Christian private school.
The 2nd Circuit appeals court upheld tuition reimbursement to the parents of $3,660 for the 2001-02 school year. The court unanimously rejected the district’s arguments that the 1997 amendments to the IDEA categorically barred tuition reimbursement if the parents didn’t first try the public school system’s proposed placement.
The reasoning of the Frank G. case’s panel was applied to the Tom F. case by a different panel of 2nd Circuit judges in a 2006 opinion.
It’s possible that Justice Kennedy’s conflict in the two cases stems from some aspect of the 2nd Circuit court’s handling of it. But the reason is likely to remain a mystery. The justices do not disclose the reasons they decline to participate in a case.
A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 2007 edition of Education Week as Justices Decline to Hear 2nd IDEA Case on Tuition