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Supreme Court Seeks U.S. Views in Special Education Case

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday asked President Barack Obama's administration for its views on whether it should take up a case involving an important interpretation of federal special education law.

The order came on the first formal day of the new term, as the justices declined to hear several other education cases and refused to take up any of several appeals involving same-sex marriage, an issue that has had implications for the schools.

In the special education case, a Pennsylvania school district, joined by several school groups, is asking the high court to interpret an aspect of the "stay-put" provision of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. That provision means a child stays in his or her current educational placement during administrative and legal proceedings over a disputed education plan. That often can mean the child will stay in a private school placement, with a public school district footing the bill during lengthy proceedings.

The question in Ridley School District v. D.R. (Case No. 13-1547) is whether the stay-put requirement ends when a state or federal trial court issues a final judgment in a dispute, or whether the provision continues until all court appeals are exhausted. The federal courts of appeals are divided over that issue, with school districts in some places facing higher bills for private schooling of students where the stay-put provision has been ruled to stay in force during what are often lengthy appeals.

The question arose in the case of an elementary school student with multiple learning disabilities whose parents enrolled her in a private school after a dispute over the child's individualized education plan, or IEP. Because a hearing officer ruled in the family's favor at one point, the private school became the child's stay-put placement.

A federal district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, in Philadelphia, ultimately ruled for the Ridley school district that the child's public school IEP was appropriate. But in a separate action, a federal district court and the 3rd Circuit court said the school district was obligated to pay for the child's private school placement through the time of the first appellate decision in the case.

The school district appealed the reimbursement ruling to the Supreme Court.

"This case presents the important question of whether a school district is obligated under the IDEA to continue funding the private school placement of parents' choosing pending appeal even after a trial court has ruled in the school district's favor," the district's brief says.

A friend-of-the-court brief filed on the district's side by the National School Boards Association and the National Association of State Directors of Special Education argues that the stay-put provision should only remain in force through trial court proceedings.

"The 3rd Circuit's extension of school districts' obligations to pay for private school placements while stay-put continues through litigation—including appeals of trial court rulings in a school district's favor—creates a perverse incentive for parents to prolong appeals simply to reap the benefit of private school tuition funded by public dollars," the groups' brief says.

Lawyers for M.R. and her parents told the court in a brief that the broader reading of the stay-put provision is supported by the U.S. Department of Education regulation.

The Supreme Court asked the U.S. solicitor general to file a brief expressing the administration's views, a step the court has often taken with thorny IDEA issues.

The solicitor general's office has no deadline to file its brief, and if recent practice is any indication, it may take until next spring to file.

Meanwhile, the court on Monday denied review without comment in two other public education cases:

  • In Freshwater v. Mount Vernon City School District (No. 13-1311), the justices refused to hear the appeal of an Ohio teacher who was dismissed for insubordination for infusing Christian doctrine into his public school science lessons. I reported here on the Ohio Supreme Court's decision in the teacher's case last year.
  • In Sammarco v. Prince George's County Public Schools (No. 14-34), the court decline to hear the appeal of a Maryland educator who claimed race-bias in the due-process proceedings she received.
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