Supreme Court Rules School System Must Pay for Private Special Ed of Child Who Did Not Try Public Option First

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that a public school district must pay for a special needs child's private school tuition even though the child had not received special education at the public school before transferring to the private one.

T.A., the plaintiff in the case, attended public schools from kindergarten through the winter of his junior year of high school. Although his counselors had discussed whether he had a learning disability, he was never given an actual diagnosis. When T.A.'s problems worsened in high school, his parents placed him in a private school, where he was diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. T.A.'s parents later attempted to recover $65,000 in private school tuition from the school district under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which guarantees all children a "free appropriate education." The school district refused to pay, arguing that T.A. should have tried to use the public school system's special education programs first. T.A.'s parents sued the school district, and the case eventually reached the Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments in the case in April 2009.

In its decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the IDEA did not prohibit parents from seeking reimbursement for special education in private schools even when their child had not previously received special education in a public school. However, the court held that a school district must reimburse parents only when the district has failed to provide a free, appropriate education for the child with disabilities. In T.A.'s case, the Supreme Court found that the school district's refusal to provide special education for T.A. resulted in his loss of a free and appropriate education.

The court also made clear that its ruling was not an open invitation for parents to unilaterally pull their children out of public schools, warning that "courts retain discretion to reduce the amount of a reimbursement award if the equities so warrant -- for instance, if the parents failed to give the school district adequate notice of their intent to enroll the child in private school. In considering the equities, courts should generally presume that public-school officials are properly performing their obligations under IDEA." In this case, however, the court found that the school system had failed in its duty to T.A.

The ruling was greeted enthusiastically by disability rights activists. Kim Sweet, the executive director of Advocates for Children of New York, was quoted in the New York's Daily News, saying "[t]his decision is a good thing . . .it preserves the right to a free, appropriate public education for kids with disabilities, whether or not their school district is able to offer them an appropriate program."

To read an article in the Los Angeles Times about the court's decision, click here.

To read the full opinion in the case, Forest Grove School District v. T.A., click here.

Article Last Modified: 06/25/2009