Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Special Education Funding Case

In a case involving a child known only by the initials "T.A.," the U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide whether federal law requires parents to try their public school's learning disabilities program before turning to private schooling.

T.A.'s story probably sounds familiar to parents of children with special needs. T.A. attended public schools from kindergarten through high school, and 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 attempted to recover $65,000 in private school tuition from the school district under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The school district refused to pay, arguing that T.A. should have tried to use the public school system's special education programs first.

The unfamiliar part of the story is that the resulting court fight, which began in 2003, reached the United States Supreme Court this week in the case of Forest Grove School District v. T.A.. In the case, the justices heard arguments on the issue of whether IDEA requires parents to utilize a public school system's programs for children with learning disabilities, at least for a trial period, before they can be reimbursed for the costs of placing their child in a private school. The school district argued that the trial period could be brief and would not harm the child. T.A.'s parents, as well as advocacy groups and the Obama administration, claimed that short-term trial periods would be ineffective because a student receives a learning plan (the instrument designed to guide the student's special education program) only once a year. The parents argued that forcing a child to remain in public school when it was clear that he was not receiving the proper services, even for a short time, could irreversibly harm the child.

During the oral arguments, several justices worried that the school district's approach could tie schools down in lengthy litigation with parents who wanted to transfer their child to a private school. Justice Kennedy, who did not take part in the court's previous decision interpreting the IDEA, raised the possibility of placing the burden on the parents to prove that a school district's education plan was unable to meet their child's needs before moving the child. An opinion is expected sometime before the end of June.

To read an Associated Press article discussing the arguments before the court, click here.

The Washington Post has an article dealing with the case, and discussing IDEA in general, here.

Article Last Modified: 04/29/2009