U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Gives Priority to Special Education

By Wills, Rick | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, July 6, 2009 | Go to article overview

U.S. Supreme Court Ruling Gives Priority to Special Education


Wills, Rick, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


A U.S. Supreme Court ruling that forced an Oregon school district to reimburse parents of a special-needs student for private tuition opens doors for students in other states, education officials say.

In Pennsylvania -- and across the nation -- the decision means districts need to be especially diligent about identifying who qualifies for special education, experts said.

"It is a caution that they need to provide special education," said Nancy Hubley, managing attorney at the Education Law Center in Pittsburgh, a private, nonprofit public interest law firm.

Last month's 6-3 ruling forced the Forest Grove, Ore., school district to pay $65,000 to the parents of a teenage boy whom the district repeatedly said was ineligible for special education.

The boy, identified as T.A. in court documents, had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which was diagnosed after his parents enrolled him in a private, residential school.

In dispute was whether a 1997 amendment to the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act exempted public schools from reimbursing parents who enrolled children in special schools if the child was not classified as a special education student in public schools.

Under federal law, school districts are required to reimburse students or families for education costs when public schools do not have services that address or fulfill the students' needs.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, special- education students are entitled to a "free and appropriate public education."

If a district makes a mistake by not identifying student as needing special-education services, the decision means the district will have to repay parents who seek services on their own, said Charles Jelley, a Greensburg lawyer who represents special- education students.

"This reaffirms that if a district has made an error, they will have to affirm that error later. They will have to pay," Jelley said.

But Hubley and others said the decision does not give parents an unfettered right to place their children in private schools at public expense. …

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