A school district is under no obligation under a federal disability-rights law to provide special education services to a Maryland student enrolled exclusively in a private religious school, a federal appeals court has ruled.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit, in Richmond, Va., held unanimously that the Baltimore city school district did not have to provide services to a student with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder who attends a yeshiva.
The boy's parents sought the district-provided services under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a federal law that prohibits people with disabilities from being excluded from or discriminated against under any federally funded program. In the schools, the law parallels the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, though with some differences in coverage.
The Baltimore district determined in 2009 that the boy, identified as D.L., was not eligible for services under the IDEA, but was eligible under Section 504. However, the district told D.L.'s parents that he would have to be enrolled in a public school to receive services. In contrast to some other states, Maryland does not permit dual enrollment in private and public schools.
The parents challenged the decision. They contended that Section 504 compelled the district to provide services to their son while he was enrolled in private school (although they intended that the services would be provided at a public school). They also argued that the district's refusal violated their rights to make educational decisions for their child based on two key U.S. Supreme Court precedents.
The parents lost both before a hearing examiner and a federal district court. In its Jan. 16 decision in D.L. v. Baltimore City Board of School Commissioners, the 4th Circuit panel upheld the grant of summary judgment in favor of the school district.
The appeals court said the statute's language does not make clear whether public schools must provide services to students enrolled in private schools. But the court cited a 1993 letter by the U.S. Department of Education's office for civil rights that said, "Where a district has offered an appropriate education, a district is not responsible under Section 504 for the provision of educational services to students not enrolled in the public education program based on the personal choice of the parent or guardian."
The 4th Circuit said the OCR's view expressed in the letter was owed deference in the courts.
The court also rejected the parents' argument that Section 504 should be interpreted broadly because it is a remedial statute. "Section 504 and its implementing regulations prohibit discrimination on the basis of disability, not on the basis of school choice," the court said.
The opinion said there would be practical implications in ruling otherwise, including that even if a private school student with ADHD intended to receive services at a public school, prevailing methodologies for treating the disability would require public school teachers to travel to the student's private school to deliver some of the services. "It would be taxing on staff and budgets alike," it said, "to organize this sort of coordination where the child is split between school sites."
Finally, the 4th Circuit panel addressed whether the school district's decision violated the parents' rights under two Supreme Court decisions: Pierce v. Society of Sisters, a 1925 decision that struck down an Oregon requirement that parents send their children to public schools; and Wisconsin v. Yoder, a 1972 ruling that limited compulsory education requirements for Amish children based on their faith.
"The right to a religious education does not extend to a right to demand that public schools accommodate [the parents'] educational preferences," the court said. "[The Baltimore city district] has legitimate financial, curricular, and administrative reasons to require that D.L. enroll exclusively in a public school in order to take advantage of Section 504 services. The school board need not serve up its publicly funded services like a buffet from which [parents] can pick and choose."