Whether a school district is liable for the expenses that a disabled student incurred by pursuing private education when that student did not first attempt to seek help in a public school facility, as mandated by statute.
In 2000, T.A.'s parents realized that their son was a troubled teenager, and though it was suspected that he might have a learning disability, his school district determined that he was not disabled and therefore not entitled to special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. T.A.'s problems continued and in 2003 his parents placed him in a private school. In 2004, a hearing officer determined that T.A. was disabled, and that because Forest Grove School District had failed to offer him free appropriate public education, the district had to reimburse T.A.'s parents for the cost of the private school. The school district appealed, and the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that damages were not required because T.A.'s parents removed him unilaterally, without his ever having received special education services from a public agency. In this case, the Court will determine whether parents can unilaterally make this decision and then expect the school district to reimburse them, or if they must wait for action by the school district.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
Whether the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act permits a tuition reimbursement award against a school district and in favor of parents who unilaterally place their child in private school, where the child had not previously received special education and related services under the authority of a public agency.
After years spent in the Forest Grove School District, T.A. left in the middle of his junior year of high school, when his parents decided to put him in a private school.T.A. had been having difficulty paying attention and doing his schoolwork, yet his problems had not been so serious as to cause him to be held back. This relative success, however, was at least in part due to the "extensive at-home help" that T.A.'s parents and sister had given him. Nothing appears to have been made of T.A.'s difficulties until his 2001 when, during his freshman year, his guidance counselor had him evaluated for a learning disability. While internal staff notes show suspicions that T.A. might have suffered from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder ("ADHD"), no action was taken, nor were T.A.'s parents informed. Consequently, while T.A. was evaluated for a learning disability, he was not evaluated for ADHD, which is classified as a mental disorder rather than a disability. The evaluating psychologists and specialists unanimously concluded that T.A. did not suffer from a learning disability. As such, T.A. was not eligible for special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. § 1400.
T.A.'s problems continued to worsen during 2002 and 2003, as evidenced by personality changes, marijuana use, a trip to the emergency room, and an attempt at running away. In March of 2003, T.A.'s parents enrolled him in a three-week therapy program and had him independently evaluated. T.A. was diagnosed with ADHD, depression, math disorder, and cannabis abuse. Immediately thereafter, at the end of March 2003, T.A.'s parents enrolled in a private school "designed for children who may have academic, behavioral, emotional, or motivational problems." Tuition at this institution was $5,200 per month.
T.A.'s parents then requested further evaluation of T.A.'s condition by the school district. After further evaluation, School District experts concluded that T.A. did not qualify as disabled under the IDEA because his "diagnoses did not have a severe effect on [his] educational performance." After considering the School District's decision and hearing further evidence, Oregon's Administrative Hearing Office concluded that T.A. was disabled and eligible for special education, and that, as the School District had failed to perform its educational mandate, it was responsible for the costs of sending T.A. to the private school.
The School District appealed, arguing that reimbursement was inappropriate as T.A. had withdrawn on his own accord, without having provided notice, without having received any special education from the School District, and for reasons unrelated to his disability. The district court overturned the Hearing Board's ruling granting T.A.'s parents reimbursement, saying that, as a matter of law, the IDEA did not permit T.A.'s reimbursement because he had not previously received special education services from the school district. It also found that even "general principles of equity" prohibited reimbursement of T.A.'s private education costs. T.A. in turn appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court's ruling, finding that it erred in denying T.A.'s equitable claim for reimbursement, and listing a number of facts the district should have, but failed to consider in making its determination. The School District appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted its petition for certiorari on January 16, 2009.
Purpose of the IDEA
Petitioner Forest Grove argues that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), as amended in 1997, requires tuition reimbursement for parents who unilaterally send their children to private school only if the child "previously received special education and related services under the authority of a public agency." Forest Grove asserts that reimbursement in this case cannot be justified by looking to the IDEA's broad purpose. While the IDEA is supposed to provide every disabled child with access to education, the 1997 Amendments were intended to limit the school district's liability for private school tuition reimbursements.
Respondent T.A. argues that the IDEA's guarantee of free appropriate public education for every child with a disability "has long been construed to include the right of parents to seek reimbursement for private school tuition where the school district has failed to make such...education available." The Supreme Court has previously endorsed the idea that a school district cannot escape its obligation to provide a free appropriate public education. As long as school districts fulfill their obligation to provide free appropriate public education to disabled students, he explains, they will not have to worry about claims for reimbursement. T.A. asserts that there is nothing in the 1997 Amendments that categorically bars tuition reimbursement.
Forest Grove asserts that the Ninth Circuit's holding-that parents who unilaterally place a child who has not previously received special education in private school can still be compensated for those costs-is not compatible with the IDEA's text and structure. specifically addressed the issue of reimbursement in such cases in the 1997 Amendments. Before 1997, the statute was silent about whether parents who unilaterally placed their children in private school could be reimbursed. In the 1997 Amendments Congress changed the relevant provision, 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(10)(c), so that it explicitly states that where a school district does not make free appropriate public education available, reimbursement is available only where the child received special education services from the district. That reimbursement would not be made in such a case is also consistent with the legislature's intent to limit school districts' liability.
T.A. argues that this is a misreading of the statute. Using the Forest Grove's reading, 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(10)(c)(ii) would bar reimbursement no matter how neglectful the school district was of its duty or how reasonable the parents' attempt to secure special education services for their child. T.A. argues that this assertion is in conflict with section (C)(i), which provides a "safe harbor" from reimbursement claims to schools who fulfill their duty of making free appropriate public education available to the child. According to T.A., it is irrational to think that Congress would create an implied safe harbor provision for school districts under (C)(ii) when an express one clearly exists under (C)(i). T.A. also asserts the legislative history does not support the idea that Congress intended to exclude children when a school district makes an erroneous eligibility determination or that it intended to prevent the courts from using equitable principles when determining whether to give tuition reimbursements to those students.
Application of the Spending Clause
Forest Grove argues that, even assuming the statute is ambiguous, the IDEA was enacted pursuant to Congress' Spending Clause power. Congress can attach conditions to a State's acceptance of federal funds as long as it does so "unambiguously."Under the Court's precedent, "the question under the Spending Clause is not whether the statute clearly relieves the State of an obligation, but whether the statute clearly imposes the obligation." Because the Spending Clause requires "clear notice," the statute cannot be read to impose an obligation on the school district because it does not do so unambiguously.
T.A. asserts that reliance on the Spending Clause is "misplaced." "Because liability for reimbursement is bound up in IDEA's essential guarantee, Spending Clause notice concerns are not implicated." Even if the Spending Clause does apply, T.A. argues, the IDEA itself gives the districts clear notice of liability.The districts were also put on notice by the Department's issued interpretation of the statute.
Impact of the Department of Education's Interpretation
Forest Grove asserts that reimbursement cannot be justified by the Department of Education's interpretation of the 1997 Amendments. That interpretation states that "hearing officers and courts retain their authority...to award appropriate relief if a public agency has failed to provide free appropriate public education, including reimbursement and compensatory services." Courts are required to defer to an agency's interpretation of a statute when Congress has not clearly spoken on the issue, and when the agency's interpretation is reasonable. Here Congress expressly denied reimbursement when a parent unilaterally places a child who has not previously received special education in private school. Forest Grove argues that because the IDEA does not require the district to provide reimbursement in this case, the Department's interpretation was outside of the scope of its authority. Because the Department's interpretation is contrary to the IDEA's clear language and outside its authority, Forest Grove claims the Court is not required to defer to it. Forest Grove concedes that when there is more than one possible interpretation of a statute, a court should defer to an agency's judgment and experience. But it maintains that because the IDEA is Spending Clause legislation which prohibits an obligation being imposed unless the statute does so unambiguously, even an ambiguous statute cannot be interpreted to impose a reimbursement obligation.
T.A. counters that the Secretary of Education's interpretation of the statute is entitled to deference. He points out that the agency has explicitly and consistently adopted the position that reimbursement is possible in cases such as this one. Moreover,it reaffirmed this position in 2006 during a rulemaking procedure. In doing so, it rejected a proposed rule denying reimbursement where the child has not already received special education services. In sum, T.A.'s counter-argument is simple: because the Department authoritatively construed the requirements of the Act in regard to reimbursement, and did so in a way consistent with the 1997 Amendments, its position is entitled to deference.
Preventing Irrational Outcomes
Forest Grove also argues that disallowing reimbursement when parents act unilaterally would not lead to children waiting indefinitely for special education in a public school before being sent to an appropriate private school. Safeguards such as near-immediate response to parent complaints, provision for due process hearings, and access to the state or federal courts for review exist to protect children's access to appropriate education. Therefore, the district argues, it is unlikely that a child would be without recourse indefinitely, and Congress' decision to deny reimbursement in this case simply reflects a reasonable balancing of the competing interests. Forest Grove alleges that allowing reimbursement in cases where the district has not yet made a special education eligibility determination creates a "perverse incentive for parents to preemptively enroll a child in private school" without consulting the district about special education options.
T.A. argues that even if reimbursement could be limited, it cannot be barred "where, as here, the school district has wrongly determined the child's eligibility and thereby improperly denied the child all special education and related services." T.A. points out that the district's interpretation allows parents no recovery even if the school district wrongly bars access to special education. Though the Act provides procedural protections, Congress' adoption of reimbursement reflects its knowledge that these protections might not be enough. In this case, T.A.'s parents initiated their due process challenge to the district's eligibility determination in 2003, undercutting the argument that correcting an erroneous determination is an expedient process. T.A. also asserts that allowing reimbursement creates no perverse incentives, as parents who unilaterally choose private schools "do so at their own financial risk," facing the heavy burden of proving the school district's failure to provide appropriate education.
Setting aside the emotional twinge of the parents for their troubled and ill-performing child, this case is fundamentally one of fairness and equity. In a world of limited resources, how fair is it to expect the state to pay for expensive private schooling for a disordered child when comparable educational services for the disabled are freely offered by a state institution? On the other hand, is that burden appropriately borne by the School District when the school has failed to identify that student's disability?
Congress enacted the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"), 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq.,for the express purpose of aiding those children disadvantaged by disabilities to receive a "free appropriate public education." However, that statute makes it clear that private resources are only a means of last resort and that public resources must be looked to first. In this instance, with private tuition set at $5,200 per month, the cost was high indeed. Thesituation begs the question, should society at large be obliged to pay such an expense for this child's education? The apparent frustration of T.A.'s parents over the School District's alleged inattention to the disabilities of their child is understandable. The question here is whether such frustration excuses parents from making a good-faith effort to collaborate with the School District. . Congress' provision that the disabled are to receive adequate public education threatens to be overwrought if excessive and unreasonable expenses are placed upon the state.
To be sure, for a parent, the unnoticed and unidentified afflictions of a child can be nothing short of heart breaking. In this instance, T.A.'s parents contend that the deficiencies of the School District forced their hand and that they were left with no other choice but to enroll T.A. in a private school which would actively address his problems. They claim the School District's finding that T.A. suffered from a disability that did not have a severe adverse effect on his educational performance failed to take into consideration the fact that T.A.'s mother was spending two hours a day and much of the weekends helping him complete his assignments. T.A.'s parents further note that, despite the 1997 Amendments, IDEA entitles all children with disabilities to a free appropriate public education, and that this opportunity was denied to T.A. Consequently, they argue that they are due reimbursement as the School District failed to meet its obligation.
Notwithstanding T.A.'s disabilities, petitioner the School District, along with several amici curiae, argue that it is inappropriate for the School District to reimburse the tuition costs that the parents incurred by enrolling T.A. in the private school. The purpose of the IDEA is to guarantee that "[a] free appropriate public education is available to all children with disabilities residing in the State between the ages of 3 and 21." However, the School District and amici contends that the threshold issue is a determination that the child is "disabled" within the meaning of IDEA. IDEA allows tuition reimbursement only for those children who already have received special education from the public school district. Moreover, the School District argues that a student can only be determined to have a disability in a collaborative effort among administrators, teachers, and parents or guardians. In this instance, the School District contends that there was no opportunity given-nor even notice thereof-for it to fulfill its obligations because T.A.'s parents "unilaterally placed" him in private education. The statute's language makes it clear that, as a condition to tuition reimbursement, "the child must have received special education and related services" under the relevant authority, in this case the School District. The NSBA claims that litigation will be encouraged and school districts will spend more money dealing with this litigation if the Ninth Circuit's rule allowing reimbursement for students who have never received special education and related services is adopted.
The National Education Association ("NEA"), many of whose members work with children suffering from disabilities, cautions against misusing IDEA funds "to subsidize private school education for children whose parents have chosen that option without regard to the availability of a free appropriate education in the public schools." To this, the Council of the Great City Schools adds that tuition reimbursement claims, such as the instant one, that "involv[e] expensive private residential facilities for students with behavioral and drug-related problems," compromise public education and do a disservice to the millions of disabled students who are involved in public special education.
When Henry Ward Beecher said that "the mother's heart is the child's schoolroom," he surely did not have this case in mind. Children of this nation are entitled to a free, appropriate education. Part of determining what is appropriate is dependent upon identifying inhibitive disabilities. To be sure, the unnoticed and unidentified afflictions of a child can be nothing short of heart breaking, especially when efforts are made by the parents to work with school authorities to remedy that child's evident problems. However, while it is difficult to set aside the emotional twinge of parents for their troubled and ill-performing child, questions of equity and fairness also must be addressed, especially in a world of limited resources and already heavily burdened public resources. George Washington once said, "All I am I owe my mother." This case clearly demonstrates that, notwithstanding a sophisticated (albeit troubled) elementary and high school educational system, familial support and encouragement cannot be overvalued, and that this nation still has much to do.
- National Institute of Mental Health: Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder ("ADHD")
- Education Policy Program: "Individuals with Disabilities Education Act - Overview"
- U.S. Department of Education: Official IDEA website
- U.S. Department of Education: Special Education & Rehabilitative Services: "Archived: A 25 Year History of the IDEA
- Great Schools: "The History and Reauthorization of IDEA"
- The Boston Globe (April 10, 2008): Kathy McGabe, "Special-Ed Costs Taxing Town Budgets"
- On the Docket, U.S. Supreme Court News, on Forest Grove School District v. T.A.