Friday, June 26, 2009

Parents of Special Education Students Can Be Reimbursed For Private School Tuition And Costs

The Supreme Court recently ruled that parents of special education students can be reimbursed for private school tuition and costs, even if their children never received special education services from a public school. The 6-3 ruling based on an Oregon case sent ripples of concern through public school districts across the nation at a time of budget cuts and layoffs. While the federal government pays a portion of a district's special education costs through the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the majority of the costs, including tuition for private or residential school placement, are born by states and local governments. The Supreme Court ruling builds on the 1975 federal special education law's requirement for school districts to provide a free and appropriate public education to students with disabilities and whatever services are needed to obtain it. Each special-education student must have an individual education program, which spells out education goals and the supports and services needed by the students, which can range from extra instruction to a teaching assistant working with the student throughout the day. Therapies and other services also might be required. All are paid for by the district. If the district cannot provide what the student needs, the federal special-education law and several court rulings state the district must pay tuition and costs for private placement.

In a game-changing ruling for special-education students, the court rightly decided that public school districts must pay for all special-ed students' private schooling, if the districts don't provide an adequate public alternative.

The majority was formed by the rare alliance of Chief Justice John Roberts, conservatives Anthony Kennedy and Samuel Alito and left-of-center members John Paul Stevens, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. Equally fascinating, the more liberal David Souter joined true-blue conservatives Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas in dissent.

We side with the majority for a simple reason: Think what it would be like for a child with a learning problem to live in a school district that wouldn't qualify him as disabled or provide needed services. That child's either stuck or his parents must pay for private schooling.

The court previously found that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires districts to finance a disabled child's private schooling if the child attended a district's school but found the services inadequate. This ruling extends that law to students who don't get that far, entitling them to a remedy even though they never attended a public school.

Stevens had the most compelling argument:

"It would be strange for the act to provide a remedy, as all agree it does, where 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."

That said, this decision poses daunting fiscal challenges to Texas school districts. At a minimum, they must be more open to including special-ed students and creating better individual learning plans.

We hope the ruling doesn't stall existing cooperation between some parents of special-education students and fair-minded districts. Still, this game-changer was warranted.

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