Law & Courts

Supreme Court Hears Case on Private-Placement Reimbursement

By Erik W. Robelen — April 28, 2009 2 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court this morning heard a case that is likely to further flesh out the circumstances under which a family can expect a public school district to pay for the private education of a student with disabilities.

At issue in Forest Grove School District v. T.A. is whether a student who never received special education services from a district is eligible to be reimbursed for getting such services from a private school.

A lawyer for the 6,000-student Forest Grove school district, near Portland, Ore., told the justices that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act says no, arguing that amendments to the law in 1997 make clear the student must previously have received such services from the district.

But lawyers for the Obama administration and the family of the student in question, referred to only as T.A., told the justices that the district is misreading the federal special-education law. In this case, the student had long been enrolled in the public school district, but had not received special education services while there.

The high court justices probed a number of issues in questioning lawyers for both sides.

Justice David H. Souter and John Paul Stevens both worried aloud that if a family and district were in disagreement over whether a student was eligible for special-education services—as was the case here—the child could be left without services for a long time while the elibility was decided.

“Isn’t that the kicker here?” Justice Souter said. “This kind of thing could go on for years.”

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. seemed to suggest that it’s not unreasonable for a family to at least try out special education services provided by a district before going elsewhere.

“All they would have to do is try the plan for 10 days,” he said.

Justice Roberts wondered whether a ruling in favor of the parents would likely spur more parents to seek private education for their children at public expense.

But Eric D. Miller, a lawyer for the U.S. Department of Justice, said there was no basis for such a concern, arguing that the instances of students being “unilaterally” placed in a private school to get special education services are “quite rare.”

He also emphasized that if the justices found in the parents’ favor, such a ruling would not compel the district to pay for private education, but would simply make sure the parents could seek reimbursement.

“We’re not suggesting that reimbursement would be mandatory,” he said.

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.