The District has won a significant legal victory in its bid to lift a federal court injunction imposed 16 years ago because it wasn’t paying tuition and other services for special education students in a timely manner.
On Friday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed a ruling last year by U.S. District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman rejecting the city’s motion to drop the injunction, which is part of the Petties class action lawsuit.
The case was brought in 1995 by parents of special education students placed in private schools at taxpayer expense because the District couldn’t meet their needs in public settings. They argued that the city’s poor payment record jeopardized their children’s right to an education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The court appointed a special master to resolve payment disputes between the District and private providers.
Friedman asserted that lifting the injunction would disrupt settlement talks underway between the District and plaintiffs. Those talks included creation of an alternative dispute resolution process to replace the special master.
The three-judge appeals panel ruled that Friedman had failed to consider the District’s improved payment history, and returned the case to him for further consideration. They cite the city’s “detailed, undisputed statistical evidence showing that it is timely paying private providers of special education services.” Between October 2009 and September 2010, according to the District's brief, OSSE paid 98.9 percent of invoices on time and DCPS paid 94.8 percent.
In a statement Monday, D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan said that the “broader significance of the ruling is that the district courts in this Circuit will need to pay closer attention to the current circumstances to determine whether long-standing decrees such as this one should be modified or ended.”
The ruling does not affect the other major piece of the Petties case, which covers bus service for special education students. Friedman ordered last month that court oversight of the transportation system remain in place until Oct. 31, 2012, or until the city can prove that it can reliably serve the 3,500 students who ride the buses.
The appeals court also questioned Friedman’s interpretation of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2009 Horne decision, which held that the state of Arizona did not have to increase funding to English Language Learner programs in Nogales public schools because improved policies and operations made court regulation no longer necessary.
Friedman said the District “overstated both the relevance and significance” of Horne. But the appeals court found that he had not considered carefully enough whether “the risk of imminent harm” to special education students still existed.
Attorneys for special education students and families argued that until a new pay dispute resolution system is devised and proven successful, the District will not have proven itself reliable enough to have the injunction lifted.
“The question is not just compliance, but whether they can provide a durable remedy,” said attorney Steven Ney. Before ending the 16 case, he said, “We want to make sure the process is speedy, efficient, fair and reasonably inexpensive.”