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U.S. Supreme Court ruling gives priority to special education

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.

"Parents do not have free rein to do whatever they want. This only applies when a district fails," Hubley said.

About 360,000 of the state's 1.8 million students — or 20 percent — were in special-education programs in the 2007-08 school year, the last year for which figures are available.

"We are still looking into what the implications are for Pennsylvania. It is really a case-by-case situation," said Leah Harris, a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania Department of Education.

Educators expressed tentative views about the high court's decision.

"It will make budgeting for special education difficult," said Sarah McCluan, a spokeswoman for the Allegheny Intermediate Unit.

Right now, determining whether a child qualifies for special education is a district's decision. "This case muddles that authority," she said.

Other school officials pointed out that while districts do have the last word on which students get special education, they almost always work with parents.

"This will not change the way we do business. Special education is always changing. The laws are always changing, and we work very hard to meet the needs to students in out district," said Paula Schmitt, director of special education in the Pine-Richland School District.

About 500 Pine-Richland students, about 10 percent of the districts total enrollment, are in special-education programs, with about 12 to 13 students in off-site programs. Statewide, an average 14 percent of students are enrolled in special-education programs.

Lawyers who represent school districts are telling districts to be vigilant about assessing students.

"Schools need to be proactive in identifying who is need of special-education services," said Carl Beard, whose Altoona law firm works with more than 100 central Pennsylvania school districts. "But I think most of the schools in this state already are."

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