Special Needs and Private School Tuition Reimbursement

Supreme Court Ruling May Increase Hearings on Private School Tuition

The special needs children and private school tuition reimbursement debate took an interesting turn with the Supreme Court ruling in the Forest Grove School District v. T.A. case decided in June 2009. Does this mean that special needs children are now entitled to private school tuition reimbursement?


Special Needs Children and Private School Tuition Reimbursement

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The special needs children and private school tuition reimbursement debate have raged since the inception of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In the early 1980s, the Supreme Court established in the famed Rowley case that special needs children are entitled only to appropriate educational services and not the best services available.

Parents and advocates have been litigating the issue since then in hope of gaining the right to educational alternatives for children with special needs.

The Forest Grove School District v. T.A. ruling may have tipped the scales of justice toward the parent and private school tuition reimbursement, but only under certain circumstances.


Supreme Court Ruling — Understanding the Forrest Case

On Writ of Certiorari from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the Supreme Court reviewed the Forest case and ruled that school districts that do not make a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) available to students with disabilities may have to provide private school tuition reimbursement under certain conditions, even if the student had not been served in public schools.

This is a significant difference from the previous case law that established parents could be eligible to seek tuition reimbursement through the due process only if:

  • They allowed schools the opportunity to provide FAPE to the child in a public school; and
  • The schools failed to provide appropriate services.

Did the Parents Win Reimbursement?

Did the Supreme Court ruling grant the parents' tuition reimbursement in the Forest case? No. The ruling only gave parents the right to seek reimbursement for private school tuition through due process for their special needs child.

The parents requested an evaluation of the child, which the school denied. A private evaluator diagnosed the student with a disability, and the parents subsequently placed the child in a private school program.

With the Forest ruling, the parents won the right to seek reimbursement through due process by means of a due process hearing.

The case was remanded to the U.S. District Court, District of Oregon for further proceedings.


Can All Special Needs Students Get Tuition Reimbursement?

The Supreme Court ruling does not mean that all special needs students will receive private school tuition reimbursement. Whether or not a child receives tuition reimbursement will continue to be decided on an individual basis through the established due process procedures in the IDEA.

Consequently, unless the school district voluntarily agrees to place a child in a private program and to pay for it, parents must seek reimbursement through a due process hearing. They need to prove the district:

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3 Sources
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  1. Board of Education of Hendrick Hudson Central School District, Westchester County v Rowley, 458 U.S. 80,1002 (1982).

  2. Forest Grove School District v T.A., 557 U.S. 08,305 (9th Cir 2009).

  3. Cornell Legal Information Institute; OYEZ. Forest Grove School Disctrict v. T.A. 2020.