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A Roundup of Supreme Court/Forest Grove News

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The U.S. Supreme Court ruled today that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act can require districts to pay for a student's private school placement, even if that student never spent any time enrolled in public school.

The court's 6-3 decision came in Forest Grove School District v. T.A. (Case No. 08-305).

My colleagues Erik Robelen and Mark Walsh have a story on the decision here.

The Forest Grove News-Times, the newspaper that covers the Oregon district, weighs in here.

The New York Times has a take on the case. And finally, the Oregonian, based in Portland, has a short article on its Web site.

Some of the early comments from readers on the Oregonian's Web site are particularly harsh, saying that this decision could end up bankrupting school districts. What are your thoughts?

7 Comments

One can hear the crickets chirping over at the NSBA's BoardBuzz website.

I believe that this ruling will propel school districts to do a better job with a wide variety of issues, most notably RtI and IEPs. When we realize that giving FAPE in an LRE sponsored by the LEA is 1/5th the cost of private placement and that SCOTUS supports re-imbursement, maybe we can stop the special ed non-service service train and finally start "doing the right thing"....like we should have been doing all along......

I think some of the early comments from readers on the Oregonian's Web site completely missed the point. They only see that the School District (SD) has to pay tuition for a student, but do not see the fact that SD receives money from the Federal Government in exchange in providing a FAPE to special education students. The student in question here should have a fair share of that money, but the SD took the money, yet refused to provide service to him.

A gardener receives money to take care of the garden of a house, but refuses to do any work because the garden is beautiful as it is. A while later, the owner of the house realizes that grass is growing on the walls and tree branches are falling on the roof, causing serious damages to the house. He asks the gardener to fix the house and wins in court. Now the gardener cries foul: "I only took $100 a month from him, now I have to pay $100K to fix the house. It is unfair!"

@ Heavy Rain

Amen!

I don't know that the district was receiving federal funds for this student prior to his going to private school. They had not identified him as eligible for services--which is the crux of the case. The district spokesperson said that this ruling disincentivizes parents to work with the district prior to moving their kid. I don't see anything in the ruling that goes there. The district intends to appeal (at great public cost)--so who knows when there may be actual reimbursement to the parents. I am glad that their kid is getting his needs met and that they can afford to fight this one out. It is a daunting task and required maximum stamina, as well as up front bucks. In the end there may be some impact for the rest of us.

One would think that, in a rational world, the impact would be for schools to be more careful about identification and forging working relationships with parents who have concerns about their children when they don't appear to be achieving. But, the world is not always a rational place--as demonstrated by the many doom and gloom commenters on The Oregonian's website. I strongly suspect that public schools have the ability to better meet the needs of most disabled students cheaper than most private schools. In a few cases, needs are so specialized that it would serve everyone better to utilize the private option--and one would think that schools would willingly embrace this option when appropriate.

This case doesn't change the need for a legal body to rule, based on evidence, that the student requires services not available through the district--even if the unavailability is largely one of district choice. It does declare that districts do not get a pass by ruling a kid ineligible for services.

Childhood is short, and legal battles are long. I understand the intent of the law with regard to specifying a role for parents. But I frequently wish we had more folks batting for us short of the appeals and court process.

Forest Grove really only confirms the availability of a remedy that has been established since the Supreme Court issued the Burlington Sch. Committee v. Mass. Bd. of Ed. decision (471 U. S. 359 (1985)). It has been clear since then that if parents can prove that the district's proposed IEP cannot meet a student's needs to the limited degree required by IDEA (a Free Appropriate Public Education/ FAPE, or meaningful educational benefit, in the Least Restrictive Environment [as close to the mainstream as is appropriate]), they can recover the costs of providing the necessary services on their own, at a private school or otherwise. All Forest Grove does is to reject the argument that parents should be barred from the right to such a remedy if the student never received special education services in the public school. The decision does not relieve parents of the need to prove that the district's program falls short of FAPE and the burden of doing so is a steep one, full of pitfalls, much deference to school district decisions and high expense. Do critics of this decision think that a child who suffers a head serious head injury and requires a complex and highly skilled and specialized kind of education that's unavailable within most school districts should be required to enroll and fail in a clearly inadequate program in the district before the child's parents become entitled to have the district fund that necessary specialized outside placement?

This indeed is not much of a victory for families -- only avoided the devastating consequence of no remedy at all. Reading cases in CA, it seems ALJs almost never second guess schools' judgement and decisions. Family expert witnesses are generally given little weight because they do not know the student well, do not know school's program well, etc. On the other hand, parents know their kids the best, but their testimony are given zero weight, presumably because they do not know anything about education and disabilities. Who are left that know the student, know school's program, and know about education? School districts have it both ways.

BTW, the student in this case should have been identified and thus some money should have been spent on him. Part of this money should be from Federal IDEA funds. That is his fair share I was talking about in the earlier comment.

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