By Robert Barnes and Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
Parents of children with disabilities may seek reimbursement for private school tuition even if they have never sent their children to public schools, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday in a decision with wide-ranging implications for Washington area school systems.
By a 6 to 3 vote, the court settled an emotional and contentious issue that has divided frustrated parents and financially strapped school officials, often ending in legal battles. In writing the opinion, Justice John Paul Stevens said Congress intended for the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act to provide an appropriate educational experience for all children, no matter whether they had ever received special-education services from a school system.
The issue has emerged as one of the fastest-growing components of local education budgets, threatening to "seriously deplete public education funds," according to a brief filed by the nation's urban school districts.
Local school systems in the Washington area spend millions of dollars each year on private school reimbursement. And the D.C. public schools allocated $7.5 million of this year's $783 million budget just for the legal costs of hearing officers or judges to decide whether the system can provide appropriate services for children with disabilities.
Some parents said a contrary decision could have forced students, especially ones whose parents could not afford private school, to spend time in an undesirable situation before getting the help they need.
"I think it's good that the Supreme Court finally is paying attention to the rights of students with disabilities," said Lyda Astrove, a longtime Maryland special-education advocate. "I don't think there's going to be a tsunami of parents placing their kids unilaterally in private special-education schools," she added, because families must pay for the tuition up front and then be reimbursed, and they may get caught in litigation over whether the private school services are necessary.
The decision comes as the faltering economy has placed school systems under unusually tight financial constraints. Prince George's County, for example, has plans to close eight schools and lay off nearly 300 employees. In Montgomery County, Fairfax County and Alexandria, school boards are freezing or delaying salary increases.
Brian Edwards, chief of staff for Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Jerry D. Weast, said the county is reviewing the opinion, "but at this point we don't believe it will have a tremendous impact on our district." The Montgomery school system, which has a more comprehensive special-education department than many other systems, spends about $34 million a year for about 650 students in private schools.
Fairfax County schools spent $15 million on tuition in the 2007-2008 academic year, the most recent year for which figures are available. The system now has 233 students in private schools. But 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 issue before the court was over two parts of the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act. The act guarantees a free, appropriate public education to "all children with disabilities," but a 1997 amendment specified tuition reimbursement for students who "previously received special education and related services."
Officials in Forest Grove School District in Oregon said that meant they did not have to reimburse the private school costs for a boy referred to in court documents as "T.A." Even though the boy had attended public schools from kindergarten to high school, no learning disability had been diagnosed (although his counselors discussed whether he had one), and thus he had never received special-education services.
His parents eventually decided the public schools could not provide what he needed and placed him in a private school. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit said the parents were entitled to reimbursement for his tuition.
Stevens said that while Congress's wording might have been unclear, its intentions were not. And, he wrote, restricting the reimbursements to children who had previously been served by public school systems would immunize the systems for never providing the help a disabled child needed.
That would be "a rule bordering on the irrational," Stevens wrote.
Justice David H. Souter dissented, saying that "given the burden of private school placement, it makes good sense to require parents to try to devise a satisfactory alternative within the public schools." He was joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.
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 the cost.