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Court: Districts Must Repay Parents for Special Ed. Evals

By guest blogger Mark Walsh

A federal appeals court has upheld a longtime U.S. Department of Education regulation requiring school districts, under certain circumstances, to reimburse parents for independent educational evaluations of their children with disabilities.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit, in Atlanta, ruled unanimously to uphold the regulation promulgated under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the main federal special education law. The rule requires districts or other public agencies to pay for independent evaluations when parents disagree with the public agency's initial assessment of their child.

The regulation has been in place in various forms since 1977, two years after the passage of the precursor to the IDEA.

The challenge to the rule comes in the case of Alabama parents who squabbled with the Jefferson County school district over the education of their son, identified as A.C., who has a disability not specified in court papers. In 2005, the parents disagreed with the district's evaluation of their son and obtained an independent evaluation. The district refused to reimburse the parents, who then pursued relief through administrative channels and then the federal courts.

In court, the Jefferson County district challenged the authority of the U.S. secretary of education to promulgate the regulation requiring that parents be reimbursed for independent evaluations. The board argued that the regulation exceeded the scope of the IDEA because the statute itself did not authorize such reimbursements. The U.S. Department of Justice, in a friend-of-the-court brief filed in the 11th Circuit on the parents' side, argued that the regulation was valid and was entitled to deference.

A federal district court rejected the board's arguments, and in its Nov. 21 decision in Phillip C. v. Jefferson County Board of Education, the 11th Circuit appeals panel affirmed.

The appeals court noted that Congress, in effect, endorsed the earliest version of the independent evaluation regulation in a 1983 reauthorization of the special education law, and that lawmakers have further renewed the IDEA in 1990, 1997, and 2004 "without altering a parent's right to a publicly funded [independent educational evaluation]."

"Under the re-enactment doctrine, Congress is presumed to be aware of an administrative or judicial interpretation of a statute and to adopt that interpretation when it re-enacts a statute without change," the 11th Circuit court said. "Accordingly, Congress has clearly evinced its intent that parents have the right to obtain an IEE at public expense."

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