WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court has ruled that parents of special education students who opt for private school instead of trying the public system cannot be barred from seeking public reimbursement for their tuition costs.
The court ruled 6-3 Monday in favor of a teenage boy from Oregon whose parents sought to force their local public school district to pay the $5,200 a month it cost to send their son to a private school.
Federal law calls for school districts to reimburse students or their families for education costs when public schools do not have services that address or fulfill the students’ needs. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the nation’s special education students are entitled to a “free and appropriate public education.”
Schools have argued that the law says parents of special education students must give public special education programs a chance before seeking reimbursement for private school tuition.
But advocacy groups and parents of some special education students contend that forcing them to try public schools first could force children, especially poor ones, to spend time in an undesirable situation before getting the help they need.
Justice John Paul Stevens said in his majority opinion that the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires a school district to pay for private special ed services if the public school doesn’t have appropriate services.
“We conclude that IDEA authorizes reimbursement for the cost of special education services when a school district fails to provide a FAPE and the private-school placement is appropriate, regardless of whether the child previously received special education or related services through the public school,” Stevens said.
In the case before the Supreme Court, the family of a teenage Oregon boy diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder — who was identified only as T.A. — sued the school district, saying the school did not properly address the student’s learning problems. The family is seeking reimbursement for the student’s tuition, which cost $5,200 a month. The family paid a total of $65,000 in private tuition.
In its appeal, the Forest Grove School District said students should be forced to at least give public special education programs a try before seeking reimbursement for private tuition. If not, parents would bypass public schools and go directly to private school — and then ask for reimbursement from school systems already burdened by ever-increasing costs.
The court’s decision does not require reimbursement, but Stevens said school officials “must consider all relevant factors, including the notice provided by parents and the school district’s opportunities for evaluating the child, in determining whether reimbursement for some or all of the cost of the child’s private school education is warranted.”
Justice David Souter, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas dissented.
“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,” Souter said in the dissent.
This is the court’s second attempt at resolving this issue. The high court split 4-4 on a similar case from New York City two years ago. Justice Anthony Kennedy recused himself in the New York case but was among those who ruled on the Oregon case.
Nationwide, the number of special education students placed in private schools at public expense has not changed significantly over the last two decades, Justice Department lawyers said, citing statistics from the U.S. Department of Education. Just under 67,000 pupils were in private placements in 2007 — just 1.1 percent of the country’s nearly 6 million special education students.
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