The National Association of State Directors of Special Education and the National School Boards Association are asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review an appeals court ruling from February that children at the heart of special education disputes can stay in private school—on the district’s dime—while their cases wind through judicial proceedings that could take years to resolve.
In its amicus brief, filed July 28, the special education administrators and the school boards association argue that the appeals court ruling puts a financial burden on districts, and disrupts the collaborative framework for resolving disputes that is written into special education law. Under this decision, parents have an incentive to draw out their cases as long as possible, rather than trying to resolve them quickly.
The case is M.R. et al. v. Ridley School District. Ridley, a district of 5,800 students, is located in suburban Philadelphia.
A student, known in the lawsuit as E.R., attended kindergarten and 1st grade in the district, starting in the 2006-07 school year, and received special education services. Her parents decided that the district was not meeting her educational needs and placed her in a private school. Her parents then filed a lawsuit saying that their daughter had been denied a free, appropriate education, or FAPE, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
The case was heard by a hearing officer and a district court judge, ultimately making its way to the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in 2012. That body concurred with the district judge that the school district had provided FAPE. However, as the litigation was continuing, E.R.'s parents sent the district a bill for her private school tuition, saying that the IDEA’s provision allowing students to stay in place while disputes are worked out—the so-called “stay-put” provision—meant that the district was responsible for the bill until all appeals were exhausted.
The Ridley school system argued that once the district court decided that Ridley had provided a free and appropriate public education, it was no longer responsible for any private school costs. It also said the parents should have tried to get the money earlier in the legal proceeding. But the February ruling from the appeals court found otherwise, saying that the district owed the parents close to $58,000 in tuition. From the ruling:
We are not insensitive to the financial burden our decision will impose on school districts ... or the seeming incongruity of the ultimately prevailing party having to pay for a now-rejected placement. Despite two judicial determinations that Ridley did not deny E.R. a FAPE, the school district will be assessed the cost of her private school education for a substantial period of time. It is impossible, however, to protect a child's educational status quo without sometimes taxing school districts for private education costs that ultimately will be deemed unnecessary by a court. We see this not as "an absurd result," ... but as an unavoidable consequence of the balance Congress struck to ensure stability for a vulnerable group of children.
As an aside, Pennsylvania, along with five other jurisdictions (California, the District of Columbia, New Jersey, New York and Puerto Rico), accounted for 80 percent of the due process complaints filed between 2006-07 and 2011-12, and 90 percent of the complaints that were adjudicated.
A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.