Board of Education of the City of New York v. Tom F.

Oral argument: 
October 1, 2007

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) gives federal funding to state and local school systems to ensure that children with disabilities receive a free, appropriate public education through individualized educational programs. The 1997 Amendments to IDEA provide that parents of disabled children “who previously received special education and related services under the authority of a public agency” are eligible for tuition reimbursement if the school’s special education program is deemed inappropriate for the child’s educational needs. The New York State Education Department awarded Tom F. a tuition reimbursement for his disabled son Gilbert’s private school education, and the Board of Education of the City of New York appealed the decision. The Board argued that because Gilbert had never attended public school, he did not qualify for a tuition reimbursement under the language of the 1997 Amendment. How strictly the Supreme Court reads the language of the IDEA statute will determine if school boards are required to provide reimbursements to the parents of disabled children. The decision will affect the freedom that public schools have to allocate special education resources, as well as the autonomy parents have to direct special education placement.


Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), states and local school systems obtain federal funding to ensure that children with disabilities receive a “free appropriate public education” (“FAPE”) through “individualized education program[s]” (“IEP”) developed by the school systems. Congress reauthorized and amended the IDEA in 1997 to clarify the obligations of public school systems to children with disabilities and to specify the rights of disabled children and their parents. One of the 1997 Amendments provides that if the parent of a disabled child “who previously received special education and related services under the authority of a public agency” enrolls that child in private school without the agency’s consent or referral, a court or hearing officer may order the agency to reimburse the parent for tuition costs in the event that the agency failed to make a “free appropriate public education available to the child in a timely manner prior to that enrollment.”

Tom F. has enrolled his son Gilbert in the Stephen Gaynor School (“Gaynor”), a private school, since 1995. In 1997, the Committee on Special Education (“CSE”) of the Board of Education of the City School District of the City of New York (“the Board”) determined that Gilbert was learning disabled, and in the following two years conducted annual reviews of Gilbert’s educational process. Tom F. rejected the annual IEPs issued by the Board. Following both the 1997 and 1998 reviews, Tom F. sued the Board for tuition reimbursement based on alleged procedural errors and twice settled for the full yearly cost of Gilbert’s tuition at Gaynor.

On June 23, 1999, the CSE conducted its annual review of Gilbert’s placement for the 1999–2000 school year and issued an IEP, recommending Gilbert’s continued classification as learning disabled, a specific Modified Instructional Services program, and placement at P.S. 871, a public school. Tom F. continued to send Gilbert to Gaynor and requested an impartial hearing for reimbursement of the tuition cost. After the Impartial Hearing Officer (“IHO”) ordered the Board to pay the requested tuition reimbursement, the Board appealed to the State Education Department State Review Officer (“SRO”), who affirmed the IHO’s reimbursement award on the basis that an improper CSE process resulted in a faulty placement recommendation.

The Board appealed the SRO’s decision to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York, arguing that IDEA’s plain language precludes reimbursement where the student had not previously received special education under a public agency’s authority. The district court agreed, granting summary judgment in favor of the Board and reversing the reimbursement award. The Second Circuit vacated and remanded the district court’s order, citing its previous decision in Frank G. v. Board of Education of Hyde Park, 459 F.3d 356 (2d Cir. 2006). On February 26, 2007, the Supreme Court granted certiorari.


The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”)

The IDEA, originally enacted in 1970, aims to provide all children with disabilities between the ages of 3 and 21 a “free appropriate public education” (“FAPE”). In making federal grants for such education contingent upon states’ compliance with a series of procedures, IDEA imposes upon local school boards strict requirements designed to ensure that all disabled children receive FAPE while affording procedural safeguards to parents.

To the extent possible, states are required to use educational programs that integrate disabled children with non-disabled children and to discourage the removal of children with disabilities from a “regular educational environment.” If a public agency elects to place disabled children in private school, the agency bears the tuition cost of such placement. However, if a parent refuses agency-provided FAPE and opts instead to enroll the disabled child in private school, the state is not obligated to pay for that child’s education.

Tuition Reimbursement Under the IDEA

In Burlington School Committee v. Massachusetts Board of Education, the Supreme Court held that the statutory predecessor to the IDEA authorized a reviewing court to order the school system to reimburse parents who unilaterally enrolled their learning-disabled child in private school, so long as the court determined the parents’ placement to have appropriately fulfilled the program’s goals. The Court reasoned that absent the availability of retroactive reimbursement, parents awaiting a decision on appeal of the proposed “individualized education program” (“IEP”) would face two choices in contravention of the principle of FAPE: either continuing their child’s potentially inappropriate placement pending a lengthy appeal process, or having to pay out of pocket for any tuition costs incurred even if a reviewing court ultimately deems their new placement to have been proper.

The 1997 amendments to the IDEA, in further delineating the rights of disabled children and their parents and the obligations of local school systems, addressed this statutory gap by adding 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(10)(C)(ii), the provision here at issue. Under this provision, courts may require an educational agency to reimburse parents for the cost of private school tuition if the unilateral enrollment of a disabled child “who previously received special education and related services under the authority of a public agency” is adjudged to have been proper in light of the agency’s failure to offer FAPE. In a 2004 decision, the First Circuit construed this amended provision to restrict tuition reimbursement to children who had previously received “special education and related services” while enrolled in public school, or “perhaps [to] those who at least timely requested such services while the child is in public school.”

Frank G. v. Board of Education of Hyde Park

In the present case, the Second Circuit based its decision to vacate and remand the district court’s reversal of the reimbursement award on its earlier opinion in Frank G. v. Board of Education of Hyde Park, 459 F.3d 356 (2d Cir. 2006). Frank G. similarly involved the availability of a reimbursement award for the parents of a learning disabled child who had not previously received special education from a public agency after the parents unilaterally enrolled the child in private school while appealing an allegedly inappropriate IEP placement.

Frank G. departed from the First Circuit’s strict construction of 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(10)(C)(ii) in Greenland by stating a two-pronged test for parents’ entitlement to private school tuition reimbursement, based in part on principles articulated in Burlington: “(1) was the IEP proposed by the school district inappropriate; (2) was the private placement appropriate to the child’s needs.” The court explained that the private school placement need not meet the specific FAPE requirements; rather, it is appropriate so long as it is “reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits.” Applying this standard, and noting the school district’s concession that its IEP was inappropriate, the court found the private school placement to be appropriate as indicated by the nature of the instruction and the child’s resulting improvement in test scores.

In response to the Board of Education’s defense that the language of 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(10)(C)(ii) precludes reimbursement if the child has never previously received agency-provided special education, the court asserted that the equitable basis described in Burlington for enabling a court to award “appropriate” relief did not change as a result of the 1997 amendments; rather, it remains codified at 20 U.S.C. § 1415(i)(2)(C)(iii). The court concluded that a purposive reading of the IDEA in light of § 1412(a)(10)(C)(ii)’s ambiguous wording reveals that because of the broad discretion the IDEA confers on a district court to grant “appropriate” relief, reimbursement of private school tuition is still possible based on an agency’s failure to provide FAPE even if the child received no prior special education.

Board of Education of the City School District of the City of New York’s Arguments

In the present case, the Board of Education contends that the plain language of IDEA pertaining to the reimbursement question at issue is clear, and should be strictly construed to prohibit tuition reimbursement for students who have not received previous special education and related services from a public agency. The Second Circuit’s reading, the argument goes, works to nullify the statutory language that Congress specifically intended. By adding the requirement that a child must have received previous special education under the authority of a public agency to be eligible for a tuition reimbursement, Congress was specifically restricting tuition reimbursements for unilateral parental placement to those claims that passed this threshold requirement.

Furthermore, the Board argues that the Second Circuit’s decision undermines specific policy considerations of Congress. One specific purpose of the 1997 Amendment, the Board contends, was to control government expenditures by eliminating financial incentives to refer children inappropriately to special education programs at private schools. The Board additionally claims that Congress intended the Act as a way of “mainstreaming” handicapped children into an environment with non-handicapped children whenever possible. To this end, the Board argues that allowing tuition reimbursement for private school education without first giving public school education a try specifically undermines Congress’ policy considerations in passing the 1997 IDEA amendment.

The Board additionally argues that the Second Circuit’s holding is in conflict with the Spending Cause. IDEA was enacted pursuant to the Spending Clause, the argument goes, therefore Congress must provide clear notice to states of the conditions under which they are accepting federal funds. As 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(10)(C)(ii) provides no clear notice of a requirement of reimbursing disabled children that are unilaterally placed in private schools, States could not have reasonably anticipated or accepted the “potentially enormous economic impact” of providing these reimbursements.

Tom F.’s Arguments

On behalf of Gilbert F., Tom F. argues that the plain language of IDEA does not contain any requirement that a child undergo a trial period at public school to be eligible for a private school tuition reimbursement. Rather, Tom F. asserts that the 1997 amendments only require that parents cooperate with the school districts’ attempt to provide FAPE. Because he fully cooperated with the development of an IEP, Tom F. argues he was fully within his rights under IDEA to place his child in private school education and challenge the appropriateness of the IEP pursuant to a tuition reimbursement.

Tom F. further argues that the Board of Education’s interpretation is contrary to the purpose of IDEA. First of all, requiring parents to give public education a try undermines their right to challenge the adequacy of the IEP provided, rendering IEP process that is the “core of the statute” meaningless. Second, the statute was meant to avoid placing parents in the situation that the Board’s interpretation presents: a choice between sacrificing their children’s appropriate education or their right to tuition.

Finally, Tom F. rebuts the Board’s Spending Clause argument by claiming that even if the IDEA statute itself does not provide notice, that the Court’s decision in Burlington placed school boards on clear notice that they were potentially liable for private school tuition reimbursements for unilateral parental placement. Therefore, no reasonable official could possibly plead ignorance to his liability for a tuition reimbursement when the school district’s IEP is inappropriate and has not provided the parents with FAPE.


The Individuals with Disabilities Act provides federal funding to school systems to ensure that children with disabilities receive a free, appropriate public education. Tom F. claimed New York City’s program did not provide appropriate instruction for his disabled child, and sued the New York State Education Department for reimbursement for his son’s private-school tuition. The outcome of this case could determine the freedom and financial ability of school systems to allocate IDEA funding as they see fit, and will affect the autonomy of parents in the IDEA process. The Supreme Court’s decision will depend upon how narrowly the Court construes the IDEA statute. The Court’s confidence in public school boards’ ability to administer special education will affect its decision whether to remove some of the parent’s autonomy from the IEP process in the name of protecting the system as a whole from abuse.

Written by:

William Grimshaw

Stephen Markus

Edited by:

Ferve Ozturk