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Supreme Court Rejects School District’s Arguments in Important Special Education Case

Education Publications

In a 6-3 decision that makes it easier for parents to be reimbursed for private school tuition for special education students, the United States Supreme Court held that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) does not categorically prohibit reimbursement of private education costs for children who have never received special education and related services from a public school. [Click link for the Court’s opinion in Forest Grove School District v. T.A.]

Legal Background and School District Argument

In a 1985 case, School Committee of Burlington v. Department of Education of Massachusetts, the Supreme Court held that a school district that fails to provide a special education student a “free and appropriate public education” (FAPE) under the IDEA may be required to reimburse the student’s parents for private school expenses. At the time Burlington was decided, the IDEA did not specifically address private school tuition reimbursement.

The IDEA was amended in 1997 to include a new provision specifically addressing payment for education of children enrolled in private schools. The 1997 Amendments limited reimbursement to parents of a child “who previously received special education and related services under the authority of a public agency.” Based on those amendments, the school district in Forest Grove School District v. T.A. argued that the IDEA categorically bars reimbursement of private school tuition for students who have not previously received special education and related services from a public agency.

The Majority Opinion

In an opinion by Justice Stevens, a majority of the Court disagreed with the school district’s reading of the statute. The Court explained that its holding in Burlington applies equally to cases where a student never received special education services from a public school, because “a school district’s failure to propose an IEP of any kind is at least as serious a violation of its responsibilities under IDEA as a failure to provide an adequate IEP.” The Court noted that the risks associated with lengthy administrative review of parental complaints are just as strong where a student never received special education services from a public agency as they are when the student has received such services. The Court also held that the 1997 Amendments did not supersede its decision in Burlington, for two reasons. First, the amendments did not explicitly prohibit granting reimbursement in a circumstance like T.A.’s. Second, the fact that the amendments allow reimbursement in one circumstance (where a student has received prior special education services) does not foreclose allowing reimbursement in other circumstances (where a student has not received such services).

The Dissenting Opinion

Justice Souter authored a dissenting opinion. The Dissent took the position that where the 1997 Amendments mentioned reimbursement of private school tuition for students who had received special education services, but failed to authorize reimbursement for students who had not received such services, reimbursement for students who had not received such services was prohibited.

Potential Impact of the Case

Although the Forest Grove decision is clearly a victory for special education advocates, the Court took pains to indicate the limits to its holding. The school district had expressed concerns that the decision would encourage parents to enroll children in private school without first allowing the district a chance to provide their children FAPE. Yet the opinion made clear that a court or hearing officer must find more than just that the school district failed to provide FAPE and that the private school placement was appropriate. Where a parent fails to cooperate, school districts will have an argument under Forest Grove that they are not entitled to reimbursement. Furthermore, the Court’s decision was based in part on the fact that it believes the incidence of private school placement at public expense is quite small. Thus, if the Forest Grove decision does open the floodgates to numerous financially-burdensome lawsuits by parents, the Court arguably left itself open to reassess its interpretation of the statute in light of those financial burdens.