On June 22, 2009, in a 6-3 decision entitled Forest Grove School District v. T.A., 557 U.S.__(2009), the United States Supreme Court, held that a local school district must pay for the private residential tuition for a child who had never received special education services in a public school. Building on its rulings in the School Comm. of Burlington v. Department of Ed of Mass., 471 U.S. 359 (1985) and Florence County School District Four v. Carter, 510 U.S. 7 (1993), the Court ruled the 1997 Amendments to IDEA did not "categorically prohibit reimbursement for private education costs if a child has not 'previously received special education and related services under the authority of a public agency'."
The student attended public schools from kindergarten through half of his junior year. Problems arose in his freshman year followed by a series of tests in which the school district found no qualification for special education services. Educational problems continued to follow through his sophomore year and the district advised of a potential program at the local community college that may help the student. The parents sought private professional advice. At that time the student was diagnosed with ADHD and a number of learning disabilities. The private specialist recommended the student would be best served by a private residential facility. He was enrolled at a private academy that focuses on educating students with special needs.
The parents hired a lawyer, advised the school district of the private placement and requested a due process hearing. The school district once again tested and found no significant adverse impact on educational performance based on the diagnosed ADHD. Accordingly the school district refused to supply an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). The parents chose to leave their child in the private placement for his senior year. The Hearing Officer found the school district failed to offer a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) and that the private placement was correct. The hearing officer ordered the district to reimburse the parents for the entire cost of the private placement.
On appeal the US District Court found the IDEA Amendments of 1997 provided an absolute bar to reimbursement if the student had never received special education services before the transfer to a private school. The district court then went one step further and stated as a matter of "equity" the parents were not entitled to reimbursement.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the decision. That court noted the IDEA Amendments did not provide an absolute bar to reimbursement when a parent places a child in private school even if services were not previously provided. The court of appeals found that the class of children who were never diagnosed or diagnosed improperly were entitled to "appropriate relief-including reimbursement". The court of appeals also rejected the "equity" analysis of the district court and remanded the case to the district court for further analysis on the equities of the situation and the appropriate amount of reimbursement.
Based on conflicting decisions in various Courts of Appeals, the Supreme Court agreed to review whether the IDEA Amendments provided a categorical bar to tuition reimbursement for students who had not previously received services from a public education agency. The Court found no such categorical bar exists.
Using the analysis provided in the Burlington case the Court noted reimbursement is appropriate if the placement was "proper" and the school district failed to provide an IEP or provided an improper IEP. Distilled to its essence, the Court's holding hinged on the reasoning that the failure to provide an IEP "is at least as serious a violation of its responsibilities under IDEA as a failure to provide an adequate IEP."
The Court's opinion clearly stated that the only "question" for the Court was whether the Amendments required a different result. After weaving its way through the Amendments, and rejecting the school district's arguments, the Court stated what the school district was requesting was immunity from suit if the school district refused/failed to identify a student as needing special education services. The Court questioned how a child with an inadequate IEP could sue but one without an IEP could not. Further, due to inevitable delays in obtaining decisions and appealing in through the court system prospective relief is a necessary element of the relief to the parents and student.
Answering the dissent - and the critics that surely would - follow the Court said its decision would not impose a substantial burden and/or lead to parents enrolling their children in private placements without cooperating with school districts. The safeguards the Court relied on were that the courts and hearing officers still must find: 1-that the public placement violated the IDEA; 2-private placement was proper; and, 3-the hearing officers and the courts retain jurisdiction to reduce the awards if the equities so warrant. In the end the Court affirmed the Court of Appeals and ordered the case remanded to the district court to properly consider the equities and issue a proper award of reimbursement to the parents.
While the decision's effect will be debated for years, the ground rules are now clear. If services were not offered or if an IEP was inadequate and private placement was found to be proper, a school district will be responsible for an equitable reimbursement for the costs of the private placement.