SCOTUS: School Districts Must Pay for Private Special-Ed Costs

Amid the excitement over yesterday's Supreme Court ruling upholding key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, another decision was lost in the shuffle: In Forest Grove School District v. T.A., the Court reaffirmed that local school districts must reimburse the parents of special education students for private school costs. The case concerned a high school student, "T.A.," who, after years of public schooling, was placed in a $5,200 a month boarding school, and thereafter diagnosed with a number of learning disabilities. T.A.'s home school district, in Oregon, is now on the line for those fees.

Many education reformers will be disgruntled with this decision: In D.C., for example, gadfly schools superintendent Michelle Rhee has frequently cited special education costs as a major road block to her planned overhaul of the public schools, which includes a merit pay proposal that would allow teachers to earn as much as $130,000 a year. As the New York Times reports, about 90,000 American special-ed students are enrolled in private school, most of them there via a referral from a public school that is footing the bill. Last year New York City paid $89 million in private school special-ed tuition. The city had filed an amicus brief in support of Forest Grove.

In the decision — in which only Justices David Souter, Antonin Scalia, and Clarence Thomas dissented — the Court actually expanded the situations under which public schools are responsible for these costs, saying that student tuition must be provided even if the child was never classified as "special ed" by the public district itself.

Diagnoses of autism-spectrum disorders and ADHD are increasing faster than many schools can deal with them, so parents of special-ed students will undoubtedly celebrate this decision. But that won't quiet debates over whether such large revenue streams should be directed toward educating just a few students outside of the public system — especially amid state budget crises, when so many public schools are in dire need of financial support.

cross-posted at TAPPED

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