Supreme Court Rules Parents Can Be Reimbursed for Private School Tuition

By Marla B. Matthews

July 2009

In a 6-3 decision, the United States Supreme Court recently ruled that parents could be reimbursed for private school tuition under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) even though the student never received special education services from the public school district.

Background

The student in Forest Grove School District v. T.A., attended public schools from kindergarten through the winter of his junior year in high school. His teachers observed that he had trouble paying attention in class and completing his assignments. When the student was a freshman in high school, his mother referred him for a special education evaluation. After a somewhat limited evaluation, the special education team and the student’s mother agreed that the student was not eligible for special education services.

When the student’s problems worsened during his junior year, his parents obtained a private evaluation which resulted in a diagnosis of ADHD and a number of disabilities related to learning and memory. Thereafter, the student’s parents unilaterally enrolled the student in a private school.

The parents then requested a due process hearing to determine whether the student was eligible for special education services. The evaluation team concluded that the student was not eligible for services because his ADHD did not have a sufficiently significant adverse impact on his educational performance. On appeal, a hearing officer found that the school district failed to meet its obligations under IDEA in not identifying the student as being eligible for special education services. Because the district did not offer the student a free and appropriate public education (“FAPE”), the hearing officer ordered the district to reimburse the student’s parents for the cost of the private school tuition.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

n appeal, the Supreme Court held that IDEA authorizes reimbursement for the cost of private special education services if a school district fails to provide a FAPE and the private school placement is appropriate. In so ruling, the majority dismissed the school district’s argument that reimbursement for the cost of private school is only required in those instances where the student has previously received special education services in the public school. The majority noted that it would be “particularly strange” for IDEA to provide a remedy 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 dissent argued that the 1997 amendments to IDEA set forth the limited range of circumstances in which parents can be reimbursed for private school tuition and expenses. The dissent also focused on the fact that providing special education services can be “immensely expensive” for school districts and substantial procedures are in place to protect a student’s rights under IDEA.

Impact on School Districts

The Forest Grove case is a good reminder for school districts to complete thorough and complete evaluations. The majority in Forest Grove specifically pointed out that the first evaluation that was done by the school district was inadequate — the school psychologist interviewed the student, examined his school records and administered cognitive ability tests but determined that further testing for learning disabilities or other health impairments was not necessary. Eligibility decisions must be based on a complete battery of assessments that address all areas of suspected disability or impairment. If the special education team determines that a student is eligible for special education services, a thorough evaluation will provide a productive starting point for decisions about a FAPE.

Several commentators have suggested that the Forest Grove decision will open the floodgates for parents to request reimbursement for the cost of private school tuition. Regardless of whether the decision has a substantial impact, the decision encourages school districts to review their referral, evaluation, eligibility and placement procedures with an eye toward avoiding a unilateral placement with unexpected financial consequences.

If school districts have any additional questions on these complicated issues, they should contact legal counsel.