Court Rules Parents Entitled to Private School Tuition Upfront

     In Mr. and Mrs. A v. New York City Department of Education , a United States District Court has ruled that under certain circumstances, when parents cannot afford to make private school tuition payments, the IDEA can require  school districts to make those payments. In this case the 14-year-old student had autism, Asperger’s syndrome, bipolar disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and was eligible for special education services. The school district developed an IEP for the 2007 to 2008 school year but did not make a placement recommendation. The placement recommendation was referred to a different team that approved non public school placements. Unfortunately, the school district never offered a specific placement prior to the start of the 2007 to 2008 school year. So, the parents notified the district that their son would be enrolled in the Rebecca School, a private program. The parents signed an agreement with the Rebecca School to make payments for the annual $84,900 tuition. However, since the family’s annual income was  $64,000, it was difficult for them to make the payments. The student made educational progress at the Rebecca School. The parents later pursued a due process hearing to obtain the prospective payment of tuition.

     The hearing officer found that: (1) the school district did not offer an appropriate program, (2) the Rebecca School program was appropriate, and (3) ordered the school district to pay the student’s tuition. The school district appealed to a state level review officer who also found the district did not offer an appropriate program and the Rebecca School Program was appropriate. But, the state level review officer decided that since the parents had not been able to pay the tuition out-of-pocket, they were not entitled to prospective funding of the student’s tuition. The parents then filed a law suit in federal district court to obtain the tuition payments to the Rebecca School.

     The court reviewed many of the IDEA private school tuition reimbursement cases including the Supreme Court decisions in  Burlington v Dep’t of Education (1985)  and Forest Grove (2009).  Those cases establish that where parents can show: (1) the public school’s program is inappropriate (2) the private program in which the parents have enrolled their child is appropriate, then, (3) the parents can be reimbursed for the tuition they have paid to the private school.

    But, here, the school district argued that, while these cases authorize the reimbursement to parents of tuition the parents have paid, the cases do not do not authorize direct payment to the private school. The court, however, ruled that in cases like this one, where parents lack the financial resources to “front” the costs of private school tuition, the tuition can be paid directly to the private school.  The court states that: “A contrary ruling would be entirely inconsistent with the IDEA’s statutory purpose, including the goal of ensuring FAPE to the least privileged of the disabled children in our nation. Such a ruling would also be irreconcilable with decades of case law, summarized above, holding that the exercise of rights under the IDEA cannot be made to depend on the financial means of a disabled child’s parents.” 


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