Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Tuition Reimbursement is Not Automatically Barred When Placement is a School that Primaily Serves Students with Disabilities

As an attorney practicing in Iowa, I take particular note of the special education opinions issued by the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has appellate jurisdiction over the federal district courts of Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, and South Dakota. Only the U.S. Supreme Court has greater authority than the Eighth Circuit to interpret the law that must be followed by those courts.

Last year, the Eighth Circuit decided a case that may be important to some parents of children with disabilities who are living in within its jurisdiction. In C.B. v. Special Sch. Dist. No. 1 (636 F.3d 981 (8th Cir. Minn. 2011), the Court reviewed a matter in which parents who believed a school district had violated their child’s right to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) over a two year period, had placed their child in a private school, and requested that the school district reimburse them for the tuition expenses. In countering the parents’ request, the school district contended that among the reasons it had no duty to reimburse C.B.’s tuition was that his placement in a private school that primarily served students with disabilities did not accord with the IDEA’s least restrictive environment provision.

For the first time, in C.B., the Eighth Circuit joined the Third and Sixth Circuits in holding that a child’s placement in a school that primarily serves students with disabilities does not need to satisfy the IDEA’s preference that children with disabilities be educated in the least-restrictive environment. In finding that the placement was proper, the Court ordered the school district to reimburse the parents for the cost of C.B.’s tuition on the basis that: (1) the record in the case supported the conclusion that C.B.’s individualized education program (IEP) was not reasonably calculated to provide him with some educational benefit because year after year the district had failed to help C.B. achieve even trifling goals, and (2) the IDEA’s preference for mainstreaming does not automatically make placement in a private school that primarily educates children with disabilities an inappropriate private placement under the circumstances in C.B.’s case.

This decision doesn’t mean that parents who think their child isn't receiving a FAPE can enroll their child in a private school and assume that the school district will be required to pay the child’s tuition. However, it does set a precedent for the courts in the Eighth Circuit, which provides that in the Eighth Circuit, the IDEA’s “least restrictive environment” preference does not bar a court from ordering a school district to reimburse tuition on the basis that a private school is one that primarily serves students with disabilities.

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