Public schools must pay for private special ed, Supreme Court rules

July 21, 2009

By Chantelle Lusebrink

Parents of special-needs students in many cases can chose education programs they believe will work best for their student’s needs without entering into their local public school districts, according to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling rendered June 22.The decision, which upholds a lower court ruling, shifts the approach school systems have been using for many years.

However, Issaquah School District officials have been living with the decision for about a year, since it came down in a 9th Circuit Court decision, and has yet to see an increase in requests for private reimbursement, said Sara Niegowski, district communications director.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in favor of an Oregon family who sought to force the Forest Grove School District to pay for its teenaged son’s private education. The family claimed Forest Grove School District officials did not properly address the student’s attention deficit disorder and learning problems, and thus put him in a private school.

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, special-education students are guaranteed a “free and appropriate public education.” The law calls for school districts to reimburse families and/or students for their education costs when local school districts can’t address the students’ needs.

The crux of the argument, according to Forest Grove School District’s representatives was that parents and students must give local district’s programs a chance to help students before seeking reimbursement for tuition. In this case, district officials told the family of the teenager they were not eligible for reimbursement because their son hadn’t been in the district’s special-education classes.

However, the majority of Supreme Court justices disagreed.

“Optimally, we want parents to come to us first,” Niegowski said. “If they live within the public school district and feel as if their student needs a different placement, we want them to notify us up front, so we can work together collaboratively for what is in the best interest of the student.”

If parents choose to place their student in another education program without notifying the district, there is a tremendous burden of proof parents must have to prove that the district hasn’t met their child’s needs and that they need to be reimbursed, she added.

That would most likely come out in a court hearing, costing parents and district officials money that could be spent finding a solution to help the student, she said.

Right now, there are about 20 students attending outside programs under the law, she said.

“Many of those are likely hearing impaired, because we don’t have those services here,” she added. “Are there tons of people out there right now, not letting us know that they are seeking outside educational programs and will ask for reimbursement? We don’t know, but we don’t think there are.”

Reach Reporter Chantelle Lusebrink at 392-6434, ext. 241, or Comment on this story at

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One Response to “Public schools must pay for private special ed, Supreme Court rules”

  1. Lee Dimin on July 22nd, 2009 3:07 am

    It would be helpful to those interested in Supreme Cpourt decsionsto be apprised of the name of the case befoire the Court, so that the reasoning of the Court and the dissenbt may be studied so that proper comment may be made. Thank you.

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