The United States Supreme Court released a 6-3 opinion yesterday in an IDEA case,Forest Grove School Dist. v. T.A.. In a decision that is troublesome for public school districts, the Supreme Court found in favor of the student, holding that courts may order reimbursement for a unilateral private school placement where the student has not previously received special education services from a public school district.

In 2000, T.A. began attending Forest Grove School District in Oregon. His parents placed him in a private residential academy after Forest Grove determined he was ineligible for special education services. In 2004, a hearing officer found that T.A. was eligible to receive special education services, and that Forest Grove had not provided him with a free appropriate public education (FAPE). The hearing officer ordered Forest Grove to reimburse T.A.s parents for the private school tuition (approximately $65,000). Forest Grove appealed, and the district court held that the 1997 amendments to IDEA prohibited reimbursement for students who had not previously received special education services from a district. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and remanded. It held that the amendments did not prohibit reimbursement, and that courts have discretion to grant appropriate relief based on the equities involved. The courts of appeals were split on this issue so the Supreme Court allowed an appeal. The opinion required the court to interpret two previous cases as well as sections 1412 and 1415 of the IDEA. Section 1415(i)(2)(C)(iii) authorizes courts to grant such relief as the court determines is appropriate when a student is denied FAPE. Section 1412(a)(10)(C) addresses payment for unilateral parental private placement as follows:

"(C) Payment for education of children enrolled in private schools without consent of or referral by the public agency. (i) In general. Subject to subparagraph (A), this part does not require a local educational agency to pay for the cost of education, including special education and related services, of a child with a disability at a private school or facility if that agency made a free appropriate public education available to the child and the parents elected to place the child in such private school or facility. (ii) Reimbursement for private school placement. If the parents of a child with a disability, who previously received special education and related services under the authority of a public agency, enroll the child in a private elementary school or secondary school without the consent of or referral by the public agency, a court or a hearing officer may require the agency to reimburse the parents for the cost of that enrollment if the court or hearing officer finds that the agency had not made a free appropriate public education available to the child in a timely manner prior to that enrollment. (iii) [gives authorization to reduce or deny reimbursement in certain situations] (iv) [creates exception where failure of parents to notify school is excusable]"

In School Comm. of Burlington v. Dept. of Ed. of Mass. (1986), 471 U.S. 359, the Court held (and later reaffirmed in Florence County School Dist. Four v. Carter (1993), 510 U.S. 7), that 20 USC 1415(i)(2)(C)(iii) gives a court discretion to order an appropriate remedy, including reimbursement for private placement where the district denied a student a FAPE. In yesterdays opinion, the Court held that the 1997 Amendments to IDEA did not change this section, and 20 US 1412(a)(10)(c), also added in 1997, did not overrule Burlington. The court affirmed and remanded the case for consideration to the district court, ordering it to decide based on the facts whether and how much reimbursement is appropriate. Interpreting the 1997 Amendments, the majority used statutory construction principles to find that the changes made did not overrule Burlington. In that case, FAPE was denied because the student's IEP was inadequate. Applying the same rationale, the Court found that a court could order reimbursement in a situation where FAPE was denied because the student was refused services entirely. Yesterday the court held:

"IDEA authorizes reimbursement for the cost of private special-education services when a school district fails to provide a FAPE and the private-school placement is appropriate, regardless of whether the child previously received special education or related services through the public school."

Justice Stephens, writing for the majority, noted the absurd result of holding otherwise:

"It would be particularly strange for the Act to provide a remedy, as all agree it does, when a school district offers a child inadequate special-education services but to leave parents without relief in the more egregious situation in which the school district unreasonably denies a child access to such services altogether."

The dissenters argued that the language of the statute, when read in context, did overrule Burlington. Justice Souter, writing for the dissenters, noted that under the majority interpretation, parents who unilaterally resort to a private school without first engaging the public school district are rewarded for this non-cooperation. Under the law and this opinion, reimbursement is not automatic, but an option available to a court when considering how to remedy an IDEA violation. The fear is that this decision will lead to parents demanding reimbursement for private school as a windfall to supplement their preference for private schools rather than as IDEA was intended.

Posted by OSBA Legal Ledger on 6/22/2009