After today’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling permitting tuition reimbursement from a school district to parents of special-education students who unilaterally place their children in private school, Rabbi Abba Cohen, Agudath Israel of America Washington Office director and counsel, made the following statement:
This is a welcome victory for disabled children and their parents. Too often we have found that school districts are not able to live up to their mandate of providing a “free appropriate education” for children with special needs. This could be for lack of funds or the ability to satisfy the educational, cultural or other requisites that would allow these children to excel.
In such circumstances parents must be afforded the utmost flexibility in finding a successful program their children. Parents know what will work for their children and the full range of their needs. Forcing them to utilize public programs known to be failing or to provide inadequate services and resources — indeed, essentially wasting years of valuable time – is educationally unsound and, in effect, nothing less than a punishment for these vulnerable children.
No one is being taken advantage of here. The legitimacy of the placement and reimbursement will be determined. What the Supreme Court has now affirmed is that parents have the right to put their children and their special needs first, and to move ahead responsibly and expeditiously to provide what they believe will be most likely to bring the children success.
Students with disabilities are entitled by federal law to government-funded educational services. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was originally enacted in 1975 to eliminate discrimination against, or failure to adequately educate, such children.
Special-education needs are to be provided within existing public schools. However, if an independent hearing officer or court finds that a school district’s program does not suit a particular student, the child may be placed in a private school to receive the necessary educational services, at the government’s expense.
Since the evaluation and placement process can be lengthy, notes Mrs. Leah Steinberg, director of Project LEARN, Agudath Israel’s special education program, some parents opt to place their child in a private school, paying tuition out of pocket for the interim. Mrs. Steinberg was instrumental in challenging the notion that a child must have attended a public school to qualify for special education services. If parents eventually prevail in demonstrating the inappropriateness of the district’s proposed public school placement, she has maintained – and Agudath Israel has argued in amicus curiae briefs regarding such cases – they are entitled to reimbursement of the tuition costs incurred.
It is that contention that has now been affirmed by the Supreme Court. “We conclude,” wrote Justice John Paul Stevens for the majority in today’s ruling, “that IDEA authorizes reimbursement for the cost of special education services when a school district fails to provide a FAPE [“free and appropriated public education” – the language used in the IDEA] and the private-school placement is appropriate, regardless of whether the child previously received special education or related services through the public school.”