Court to Weigh Public Schools' Responsibility to Fund Private Special Education

By Robert Barnes and Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 27, 2009

The Supreme Court will consider a question this week that has riled parents, cost local school boards here and across the country hundreds of millions of dollars, and vexed the justices themselves: When must public school officials pay for private schooling for children with special needs?

The issue has emerged as one of the fastest-growing components of local education budgets, threatening to "seriously deplete public education funds," which would then detract from the care of students with disabilities who remain in the system, according to a brief filed by the nation's urban school districts.

It has also become one of the most emotional and litigious disagreements between frazzled parents and financially strapped school officials, with the battles often ending in court. District of Columbia schools allocated $7.5 million of this year's $783 million budget just for such legal costs.

Congress and the court have made it clear that every child with disabilities has a right to a "free appropriate public education." If the school system can't provide one for a child with a disability, it must reimburse parents for private school costs.

But the question for the court now is whether schools must be given a first chance to provide those services before placing the child in a private school. Some parents say that could force students, especially poor ones, to spend time in an undesirable situation before getting the help they really need.

"It's a teensy, teensy percentage of families that would be able to take the risk of placing their students" in private school with their own funds and then seek reimbursement, said Lyda Astrove, a longtime Maryland special-education advocate.

But the schools and their supporters say a ruling in favor of the parents would "open the door for parents to completely bypass the public school system and go directly to private school, and then ask for reimbursement," said Nancy Reder, deputy executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, an Alexandria group that has filed an amicus brief in the case.

The trend in special education is toward inclusion of special-needs students in the general student population, a goal mandated by federal law to end the academic segregation of children with disabilities. School systems in the Washington region tend to oppose sending students to private settings for that reason, as well as for its cost.

In Montgomery County, for example, private tuition expenses have risen from $21 million in fiscal 2000 to a projected $39 million in fiscal 2010.

The Montgomery school system, which has a more comprehensive special-education department than many other systems, has 614 students attending private schools this year. Fairfax County schools spent $15 million on tuition in the 2007-08 academic year, the most recent data available. The system now has 233 students in private schools.

But others spend much more. Prince George's County schools, with fewer services, this year spent $56 million on 1,168 students. And the District, with a historically troubled special-education department, has 2,300 students receiving private care at a cost of $141 million.

The students tend be older adolescents, usually male, with emotional disturbances, autism or other disabilities that require more adult supervision than public schools can provide.

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