Who Pays for Special Education: Parents or Districts?

A Supreme Court decision on when public schools must reimburse parents of special-ed students for private school tuition


The United States Supreme Court is expected to issue a decision soon on when public schools must reimburse the parents of special-education students for private school tuition, the New York Times reports. The case could have serious financial repercussions for families and school districts alike. The ruling hinges on the interpretation of an amendment to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which requires that disabled children receive a "free appropriate public education."

At issue is a disagreement between the Forest Grove School District in Oregon and the family of a student who was enrolled by his parents in a $5,200-a-month residential private school after he became a heavy marijuana user and ran away from home. According to the Times, the boy, who had angry outbursts and a history of behavioral problems, received a district evaluation and was deemed ineligible for special-education services at his high school. His lawyer contends that the district's staff notes mentioned he possibly has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, but he was never evaluated for it, and the district refused to help.

An appellate court decision, which the district seeks to reverse, ordered Forest Grove to pay for the student's private school tuition. The district is arguing that because the boy never received special-education services in public school, he should not be eligible for tuition reimbursement at a private school under the federal disabilities law.

The student's parents, along with the federal Department of Education and disability rights advocates, say that even though the public school never provided special-education services, tuition reimbursement must still be made available, because otherwise districts would have an incentive not to identify a student as disabled or provide services.

"The whole point of IDEA is to encourage the cooperation between parents and school districts to ensure the education of disabled children in as mainstream a setting as possible," said Michael Best, general counsel to the New York City Department of Education, in a Times interview. "If you allow parents to place their children in private school without ever trying public school, it undermines that cooperation."

But the Oregon student's parents did try the public school route—from kindergarten through his junior year of high school—and they were left without support. The court, in this case, is not specifically ruling on whether parents who never enroll their learning-disabled children in public school should be given a free ride for private school. So, the outcome might rest on the circumstances surrounding how Forest Grove failed to, in the family's mind, provide the right schooling for their son in the first place.

Supreme Court