• Supreme Court Rules Public School District Must Pay Private School Costs
  • July 2, 2009 | Author: Gary A. Chamberlin
  • Law Firm: Miller Johnson - Grand Rapids Office
  • Public school districts dealing with an increasing financial squeeze have cause for concern based on a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision. On June 22, 2009, the Court ruled that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) can require a public school district to pay for private education costs even if a child has never received special education services from the school district. In Forest Grove School District v T.A., a public school student experienced difficulty over several years in paying attention in class and completing homework assignments. A school psychologist and assessment team evaluated the student several times and concluded that there was no learning disability or impairment, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Thus, no individualized education plan (IEP) or special education services were recommended. Nevertheless, his parents had a private evaluation conducted which diagnosed an ADHD condition and recommended a structured, residential learning environment. The parents unilaterally enrolled the student without consulting the public school district, and demanded to be reimbursed for the private school costs, which the school district was required to pay after an administrative review.

    On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court (6-3 decision) held that the IDEA amendments do not bar tuition reimbursement for a student who has not previously received special education services from a public school district. At issue were IDEA’s 1997 amendments which specifically provide that a school district will not be required to pay for private education costs for a child with a disability if the school district has made a free appropriate public education (FAPE) available. However, a public school district may be required to pay private education costs if the school district did not provide FAPE, and the child has “previously received special education” services from the school district. Accordingly, in other cases where a public school district was forced to pay for private school tuition, a child had received some form of special education services from a school district that had offered an inadequate IEP. In Forest Grove, however, the school district did not provide any IEP at all, having concluded that the child did not have any disability that affected his learning performance. The parents unilaterally placed the child in private school without his having received any prior special education services.

    Public school districts may be understandably concerned about whether Forest Grove will encourage more parents to enroll their children in private school and seek reimbursement without first cooperating with the school district, thus increasing financial burdens.  However, in order to be liable for private school tuition costs, a school district would have to fail its FAPE obligation, and the private school must be appropriate under IDEA.  Moreover, the Supreme Court stated that courts “should generally presume that public school officials are properly performing their obligations under IDEA.”