(CN) – Parents of special-needs students can seek reimbursement for private special-education services even if their children didn’t receive those same services through public schools, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday, clearing up an apparent ambiguity in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
The high court voted 6-3 to uphold a 9th Circuit finding that a 1997 amendment to the IDEA does not preclude reimbursements in cases where the child had not been enrolled in a similar public-school program.
Forest Grove School District in Oregon denied reimbursement to a student, N.A., after his parents had enrolled him in a private special-education school for his senior year of high school. Although N.A. had struggled with his school work at Forest Grove from kindergarten through high school, the school district’s psychologist concluded that N.A. did not suffer from any learning disabilities and therefore did not qualify for the school’s special-education services and an individualized education program.
As N.A.’s learning difficulties worsened his junior year, a private psychologist found that he had several learning disabilities. For his senior year, his parents enrolled him in a private special-needs academy and sought reimbursement for the tuition from Forest Grove, which denied the request.
A hearing officer later reversed that decision and ordered the district to reimburse N.A.’s parents for his private-school tuition. The district court then set aside the award, finding that the 1997 amendments “categorically bar reimbursement unless a child has ‘previously received special education or related services under the [school’s] authority’.”
The 9th Circuit, however, concluded that the amendments did no such thing. The high court affirmed.
Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens said the district court’s reading of the amendments “would produce a rule bordering on the irrational.” It would be “particularly strange for the Act to provide a remedy, as all agree it does, when a school district offers a child inadequate special-education services, but to leave parents without relief in the more egregious situation in which the school district unreasonably denies a child access to such service altogether,” Stevens wrote.
Justice David Souter filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, in which he argued that the majority’s reading was the irrational one.
“When permissive language covers a special case, the natural sense of it is taken to prohibit what it fails to authorize,” Souter wrote. “When a mother tells a boy that he may go out and play after his homework is done, he knows what she means. So does anyone who reads the authorization of a reimbursement order in the case of ‘a child with a disability, who previously received special education and related services under the authority of a public agency.’ If the mother did not mean that the homework had to be done, why did she mention it at all, and if Congress did not mean to restrict reimbursement authority by reference to previous receipt of services, why did it even raise the subject?”