Cut and run? Tuition reimbursement and the 1997 IDEA amendments.

AuthorLennon, Brianna L.

Forest Grove School District v. T.A., 129 S. Ct. 2484 (2009).


    Special education advocates in the United States face financial and legal barriers everyday in their quest to uphold the rights of special needs children in public schools. Not until 1975, when Congress overhauled the nation's education law by creating the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA), (1) did the government acknowledge discrimination against special needs students in the classroom. Fifteen years after its initial passage, the EHA was renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and has since been amended to expand financial and legal opportunities for disabled children. (2) The most significant change to IDEA occurred in 1997, when congressional evaluation of the law found that "[e]ducational achievement for children with disabilities, while improving, is still less than satisfactory." (3)

    This Note addresses the challenges that courts face in balancing the legislative purpose of IDEA with its practical application. At its core, IDEA was enacted to preserve the right of all children to a "free appropriate public education" (FAPE), (4) including special needs students who, under the law, have "the right to sit in the same classrooms, to learn the same skills, [and] to dream the same dreams as their fellow Americans." (5) At the same time, IDEA and its amendments emphasize that "parents [need] a greater voice in their children's education." (6) These goals can create a disconnect between what schools must provide to special needs students and what parents wish schools would provide, and it is often up to the courts to strike a balance between the two.

    The last in a series of three landmark decisions, (7) Forest Grove School District v. T.A. clearly shows that the U.S. Supreme Court favors the rights of parents of special needs children over the autonomy of schools. (8) Prior to Forest Grove, parents could recover tuition for private placements when their local school tried, and failed, to provide adequate services to their child. (9) However, in Forest Grove, the Court broadened that right considerably, holding that parents can now request reimbursement for private tuition even when the public school did not previously provide special education services to the student. (10)

    Despite the clear win for parents, the Supreme Court did attempt to mollify the schools' loss, noting that courts still must weigh the equities of a case before making a final determination on the total reimbursement due to the parents. (11) This caveat should--as it did in Forest Grove--prevent parents who refuse to cooperate with local school districts from demanding exorbitant tuition payments. (12) The Court's dicta in support of schools, after a long discussion of parental rights, highlights the delicate balance that the Court faced in interpreting IDEA.

    In addition to weighing the interests of schools and parents, IDEA also embraces special needs students' placement in traditional classrooms. A primary impetus in passing the legislation was to integrate disabled children into the classroom. (13) However, interpretations like Forest Grove, while giving parents greater control over their child's academics, may also promote resegregation of disabled children by facilitating unilateral parental placements of children into private, special needs schools. (14) In that respect, the Forest Grove holding creates a confusing double standard: it prevents public school districts from removing children to special needs schools but allows parents, subsidized by public funds, to enroll their children in private placements without even attempting to avail themselves of their public schools' existing accommodations.

    This Note explores the original purpose of IDEA and compares it to the Court's interpretation of the language, which emphasizes specific statutory requirements rather than the broad intent of the law. In addition, this Note reminds readers that even if the Supreme Court properly balances these intentions, the bulk of the authority in deciding parent-district disputes rests in the hands of federal district courts, which may have vastly different opinions about the equities of a case and the purpose of IDEA.


    Legal and political battles over public education involve a variety of issues, but none as compelling as special education. Since the passage of IDEA in 1970, (15) litigation has been used to clarify and bolster students' rights in obtaining a FAPE. (16) Though these fights are often between parents and their local schools, it is always the children who are affected by court rulings.

    In 2009, the U.S. Supreme Court faced the most recent parental challenge to a public school in Forest Grove School District v. T.A. (17) T.A., a troubled student, attended school in the Forest Grove School District (the District) from kindergarten to eleventh grade. (18) Throughout his academic career, T.A. exhibited some attention and scholastic difficulties, but nonetheless completed his school work with his parents' assistance. (19) When he entered high school, T.A.'s difficulties worsened, but his level of achievement remained consistently better than a number of his peers. (20) Still, T.A.'s parents arranged for the District to evaluate him for learning disabilities, as his troubles both in the classroom and at home escalated. (21)

    T.A.'s school counselor recommended a routine screening for special education, noting on the referral that T.A. had difficulties "missing assignments; not following verbal directions; talking; not following written directions; being easily distracted; having low test scores; not doing work or turning in work late; having a short attention span; and not doing much homework." (22) The multidisciplinary team assigned to T.A.'s referral noted that he possibly had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), (23) but the District's school psychologist, after extensive assessment of T.A., concluded that no further testing was necessary and that T.A. was not in need of special education services. (24) Two of the District's officials and the school psychologist discussed T.A.'s evaluation with his mother before the start of the new academic year, and she agreed that T.A. did not qualify for special education. (25)

    T.A. successfully completed his sophomore year, but his parents sought alternative education during his junior year due to his increasingly erratic and drug-fueled behavior. (26) After taking T.A. to a private psychologist, (27) T.A.'s parents made arrangements to enroll him in a wilderness treatment facility for drug rehabilitation. (28) After meeting with the District's staff, T.A.'s parents agreed to register T.A. in a program with a local community college with the District's cooperation. (29) During and after this meeting, T.A.'s parents gave no indication that they disagreed with the District's assessment of T.A. or that they planned to place T.A. in a private school without the consent of the District. (30)

    However, upon T.A.'s successful completion of the wilderness program, both the staff at the program and T.A.'s private psychologist recommended that T.A. attend a residential academy so that he could be emotionally and academically supported on a full-time basis. (31) The recommendation was based on the psychologist's finding that T.A. had ADHD, in addition to several other learning and behavioral disabilities. (32) The District was not informed of T.A.'s diagnosis or the new residential school plan and was under the impression that T.A. had been successfully enrolled in its program at the local community college. (33)

    After T.A. began attending the new academy, his parents hired a lawyer and requested an administrative hearing to determine whether the District should have found T.A. eligible for special education services. (34) Upon first hearing of the parents' dissatisfaction with its evaluation of T.A., the District initiated a second review of T.A.'s eligibility for special needs services, employing a multidisciplinary team and two school psychologists to assess T.A.'s academic record and psychological evaluations, including those conducted by his private psychologist. (35) The District again concluded that T.A. did not qualify for special education services because "his ADHD did not have a sufficiently significant adverse impact on his educational performance." (36) Indeed, the multidisciplinary team noted that although T.A. did exhibit ADHD and depression, those disorders, without a severe impact on T.A.'s grades such as failing out of school, did not merit special education services. (37) T.A.'s parents did not agree with the District's determination and continued on with the administrative hearing. (38)

    The hearing officer found for T.A. and ordered the District to "reimburse [his] parents for the cost of the private [school tuition]" because the school did not provide a FAPE to T.A., as required by IDEA. (39) on appeal, the United States District Court for the District of oregon set aside the hearing officer's reimbursement award on the ground that the 1997 amendments to IDEA barred tuition payments to students who had never received special education services from public schools. (40) The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that T.A.'s parents could bring suit because "[i]nterpreting the 1997 amendments to prohibit categorically reimbursement to students who have not yet received special education and related services runs contrary to [the] express purpose" of IDEA, which is to provide services to all children with disabilities. (41) The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorari from the Ninth Circuit to mend a circuit split, since several courts of appeals had reached inconsistent holdings in interpreting the impact of the 1997 IDEA amendments. (42) Siding with the Ninth Circuit, the Court held that T.A.'s parents were eligible...

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