On June 22, 2009 the US Supreme Court held parents may receive reimbursement for private school tuition under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) even if the student has never received special education or related services from a public school district.
Forest Grove School District v. T.A., 557 US ___ (2009) involved T.A., a student who attended Forest Grove School District from kindergarten through eleventh grade. From kindergarten through eighth grade, T.A.'s teachers observed he had trouble paying attention in class and completing assignments. At the end of T.A.'s ninth-grade year he was evaluated by the school psychologist. At the conclusion of this evaluation, Forest Grove and T.A.'s parents agreed he was not eligible for services under the IDEA.
A private evaluation conducted during T.A.'s tenth-grade year concluded he had ADHD and learning disabilities. T.A.'s parents enrolled him in a private school that focused on educating students with disabilities. His family gave Forest Grove written notice of their decision and requested a due process hearing several days later. Forest Grove subsequently re-evaluated T.A. with his parents' consent and cooperation. The Forest Grove educators concluded he was not eligible under the IDEA because his ADHD did not have a sufficiently adverse impact on his educational performance. Consequently, T.A. was not offered an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) or any special education or related services.
The due process hearing officer concluded T.A.'s ADHD did adversely impact his educational performance and that he should have been found eligible under the IDEA by Forest Grove. Additionally, Forest Grove's first evaluation was found to be inadequate because it failed to assess all areas of suspected disability - including ADHD. The hearing officer determined Forest Grove's failure to identify T.A. and provide special education services denied him a free appropriate public education (FAPE). Consequently, Forest Grove was ordered to reimburse T.A.'s parents for the cost of his private school tuition. These factual findings were upheld by the District Court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.
Forest Grove argued before the US Supreme Court that T.A.'s parents were not entitled to reimbursement because he had never received special education services from the public school district. The Supreme Court rejected this argument, noting it is well-settled that tuition reimbursement is available in situations where the IEP offered by the school district is inadequate to meet the student's needs. See Florence County School Dist. Four v. Carter, 510 US 7 (1993) and School Comm. of Burlington v. Department of Ed. of Mass. , 471 US 359 (1985). The Court reasoned that "when a child requires special-education services, a school district's failure to propose an IEP of any kind is at least as serious as . . . a failure to provide an adequate IEP." The Court went on to state that adopting Forest Grove's position would leave parents without an adequate remedy when a "school district unreasonably fail[s] to identify a child with disabilities. . . "
It is doubtful that this case will significantly impact public school districts. It is important to remember that, in order to be entitled to tuition reimbursement, parents must first prove the school district did not provide a FAPE by (1) failing to conduct a proper evaluation, (2) failing to identify and serve an eligible student or (3) failing to develop/implement an appropriate IEP. Additionally, Forest Grove does not open the door for parents to receive reimbursement after thwarting a school district's efforts to identify and/or serve an eligible child. The Court specifically noted that courts and hearing officers must consider the parents' conduct - including whether notice was provided to the school and whether the school was provided with opportunities to evaluate the child - when determining whether reimbursement is warranted. The Forest Grove case has been remanded to the District Court for consideration of these factors.