Parents of disabled gain more room to pick school Court rules on tuition reimbursement

November 10, 1993|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Parents of disabled children gained wider options from the Supreme Court yesterday to send their children to private schools and get states to pay some or all of the tuition.

In a unanimous decision that appears sure to enhance the free choice of parents about schooling for children who need special services, the court ruled that they cannot be denied reimbursement for private school costs just because they choose a school not approved by state and local educators.

But the court left federal judges with discretion to approve reimbursement of less than full tuition costs if the judge finds fTC that "the cost of private education was unreasonable." The court did not spell out what that might mean in particular cases.

Even with that limitation, the decision was a clear-cut victory for parents who get into a dispute with public school officials about how disabled children are to be taught. If those parents are dissatisfied with the program offered at a public school and select a private school, the ruling will protect that choice and assure at least some recovery of the tuition costs for the private schooling.

Normally, in states that accept federal school aid, the federal law that governs the education of children with disabilities suggests that those children be kept in public schools if possible.

But the court had ruled in 1985 that the law gives parents a legal right to decide to take children out of public schools and place them in private schools for a better chance at learning.

But the court did not say then that parents could pick out a private school not approved by state education standards, and opposed by state and local officials, and still seek re

imbursement.

The state of Maryland was one of nine states that had urged the Supreme Court to bar reimbursement in that situation. Those states, plus the National School Boards Association, expressed fear about rising education costs for the states.

The court refused to block reimbursement in a case involving a Timmonsville, S.C., family. In that case, the father of Shannon Elaine Carter -- now a 24-year-old, and a graduate of a private high school -- was seeking $35,716.11 in tuition and other private school expenses.

Shannon, who had a learning disability, had been placed in the private school because her family became dissatisfied with her progress in public schools and did not like the local school's plan to keep her in public school with added special education.

The private school, Trident Academy in Mount Pleasant, S.C., has accreditation from a professional education organization but is not approved by the state of South Carolina. Thus, the state refused to provide reimbursement, and the family sued in federal court.

In yesterday's decision, the justices declared, in an opinion written by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, that a private school chosen by parents need only provide an education that a judge finds "proper" under federal law. It is not necessary that the school have state approval, the court stressed. But it is necessary that a judge find the public school option was insufficient.

The O'Connor opinion recognized that the federal law imposes "a significant financial burden on states and school districts" that take part in the federal aid program for the disabled. But, it said, public officials can avoid some or all of the costs of repaying parents for private schools by making sure the public school program meets the child's needs or by putting the child in a private setting that officials choose and that will do the job.

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