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United States: Supreme Court Reaffirms Right to Reimbursement for Private Special Education

(July 14, 2009) The Supreme Court has reaffirmed the legal right of parents to obtain reimbursement for the private education of children with learning disabilities, even when the child has not previously received special education services in the public schools.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires school districts to provide a “free appropriate public education” for students whose learning disabilities warrant special education services. The Supreme Court previously ruled that IDEA requires reimbursement for private special education where appropriate. 1997 amendments to IDEA expressly authorize reimbursement of the cost of private school special education for a child who previously received special education services from the school district.

In the case at hand, a school district determined that a child was not entitled to special education. His parents, on the advice of a psychologist, enrolled him in a private school to receive special education and filed suit under IDEA to obtain reimbursement from the school district. The district court ruled that the 1997 amendments categorically barred reimbursement for children who had not previously received special education from the public school district. On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the district court, ruling that the 1997 amendments did not forbid reimbursement in such circumstances. The Supreme Court granted review to determine whether IDEA's 1997 amendments require children with disabilities to obtain special education and services from a public agency before their parents can place them in a private school and seek reimbursement from the school district.

The Court held that the 1997 IDEA amendments do not impose such a limitation. It observed that the 1997 IDEA amendments did not modify the provision relied upon by the Supreme Court when it held that reimbursement may be obtained, and because Congress is presumed to be aware of existing judicial interpretation of statutes when it amends them, the Court concluded that Congress did not intend to limit reimbursement to children who previously received public school special education services. The Court also found it unlikely that Congress would provide a remedy when a school offers a child inadequate special education services but leave parents remediless when the school unreasonably denies access to such services altogether. In response to the school district's concerns about the financial burden arising from parents placing disabled children in private schools before working with the public education system, the Court noted that parents would still have to prove in court that the private school placement and costs were warranted. (Forest Grove School Dist. v. T. A., No. 08-305 (June 22, 2009), available at