Academic journal article Missouri Law Review

Cut and Run? Tuition Reimbursement and the 1997 IDEA Amendments

Academic journal article Missouri Law Review

Cut and Run? Tuition Reimbursement and the 1997 IDEA Amendments

Article excerpt

Forest Grove School District v. T.A., 129 S. Ct. 2484 (2009).


Special education advocates in the United States face financial and legal barriers everyday in their quest to uphold the rights of special needs children in public schools. Not until 1975, when Congress overhauled the nation's education law by creating the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA), (1) did the government acknowledge discrimination against special needs students in the classroom. Fifteen years after its initial passage, the EHA was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and has since been amended to expand financial and legal opportunities for disabled children. (2) The most significant change to IDEA occurred in 1997, when congressional evaluation of the law found that "[e]ducational achievement for children with disabilities, while improving, is still less than satisfactory." (3)

This Note addresses the challenges that courts face in balancing the legislative purpose of IDEA with its practical application. At its core, IDEA was enacted to preserve the right of all children to a "free appropriate public education" (FAPE), (4) including special needs students who, under the law, have "the right to sit in the same classrooms, to learn the same skills, [and] to dream the same dreams as their fellow Americans." (5) At the same time, IDEA and its amendments emphasize that "parents [need] a greater voice in their children's education." (6) These goals can create a disconnect between what schools must provide to special needs students and what parents wish schools would provide, and it is often up to the courts to strike a balance between the two.

The last in a series of three landmark decisions, (7) Forest Grove School District v. T.A. clearly shows that the U.S. Supreme Court favors the rights of parents of special needs children over the autonomy of schools. (8) Prior to Forest Grove, parents could recover tuition for private placements when their local school tried, and failed, to provide adequate services to their child. (9) However, in Forest Grove, the Court broadened that right considerably, holding that parents can now request reimbursement for private tuition even when the public school did not previously provide special education services to the student. (10)

Despite the clear win for parents, the Supreme Court did attempt to mollify the schools' loss, noting that courts still must weigh the equities of a case before making a final determination on the total reimbursement due to the parents. (11) This caveat should--as it did in Forest Grove--prevent parents who refuse to cooperate with local school districts from demanding exorbitant tuition payments. (12) The Court's dicta in support of schools, after a long discussion of parental rights, highlights the delicate balance that the Court faced in interpreting IDEA.

In addition to weighing the interests of schools and parents, IDEA also embraces special needs students' placement in traditional classrooms. A primary impetus in passing the legislation was to integrate disabled children into the classroom. (13) However, interpretations like Forest Grove, while giving parents greater control over their child's academics, may also promote resegregation of disabled children by facilitating unilateral parental placements of children into private, special needs schools. (14) In that respect, the Forest Grove holding creates a confusing double standard: it prevents public school districts from removing children to special needs schools but allows parents, subsidized by public funds, to enroll their children in private placements without even attempting to avail themselves of their public schools' existing accommodations.

This Note explores the original purpose of IDEA and compares it to the Court's interpretation of the language, which emphasizes specific statutory requirements rather than the broad intent of the law. …

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