Education administrators call for Supreme Court review of special education decision

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Who pays for placement?

A group of school administrators filed an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court on July 28, urging review of a recent appellate court decision. They argue it will increase special education costs to school districts and incentivize increased litigation.

The case concerns the obligations of school districts to reimburse parents for the costs of private school placements for their children, after parents unilaterally place their children in private schools, due to a lack of satisfaction with their children’s services in public schools.

At issue is the definition of “proceeding” under the “stay-put provision” of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Acts (IDEA), specifically whether school districts are responsible for the costs only until the case is resolved by a federal district court, or for the duration of an appeal.

“Requiring a school district to shoulder the cost of maintaining a child’s private school placement after a district court’s determination that the district has provided a (free appropriate public education) funnels tens of thousands of dollars per year into an unnecessary placement,” the amicus brief states. “This misdirection of funds diminishes the resources available to school districts to serve other children with disabilities.

“The time and resources a school district must devote to protracted appeals on behalf of a single student similarly robs other children, both with and without disabilities, of needed educational services.”

Under the IDEA’s “stay-put provision,” school districts must reimburse parents for the costs of private school placements during the duration of “proceedings,” regardless of the outcome of the case. The rationale is that the interests of students with disabilities will be best promoted by maintaining the status quo during the time of the litigation, which in some cases, takes years.

Starting in the 2006-07 school year, the child in the litigation, identified as E.R. in court papers, attended kindergarten and first grade at Grace Park Elementary School in the Ridley School District, outside of Philadelphia. His parents then moved him to Benchmark, a private school for students with learning disabilities, arguing that the School District had failed to provide him a free appropriate public education (FAPE), pursuant to the IDEA.

In February 2011, the U.S. District Court for the District of Eastern Pennsylvania ruled in favor of the School District, finding that its proposed services for E.R. qualified as a FAPE. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld this finding in May 2012.

Meanwhile, the parents requested that the School District reimburse it for the costs of E.R.’s attendance at Benchmark. In subsequent proceedings, the School District argued that its obligations to reimburse E.R.’s parents ended when the District Court ruled in its favor in February 2011.

In February 2014, the Third Circuit ruled that the “stay-put provision” required the School District to reimburse E.R.’s parents for the costs of attendance at Benchmark, from the time he began attending the school, until the Third Circuit’s 2012 decision determining that the School District did not violate the IDEA.

In the ruling, the Third Circuit stated that although the IDEA is ambiguous regarding whether the term “proceedings” includes appeals from district court decisions, the IDEA’s overarching emphasis on the child’s interests, as embodied by the stay-put provision, prevented it from limiting the costs of reimbursement.

“Narrowing the provision‘s scope to exclude the appellate process strikes us as an unnatural reading of such expansive language,” the Third Circuit stated.

E.R.’s parents subsequently filed an appeal. The National School Boards Association, the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, and the National Association of State Directors of Special Education signed onto the amicus brief on their behalf.