Friday, June 26, 2009

Maine educators weigh implications of Supreme Court ruling on special education

From Maine Public Broadcasting:

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled June 22 that parents of special-education students may seek reimbursement for private school tuition, even if those students have never received special-education services in public school. Maine school officials, parents and special education advocates are wondering whether the ruling will prompt more parents to place their children in private schools and seek reimbursement from already cash-strapped public school districts.

The Supreme Court ruling involves the case of a struggling male high school student from Oregon, identified in court documents by the initials T.A.. T.A.'s parents removed him from public school during his junior year and enrolled him in a private residential school that cost more than $5,000 dollars a month.

When T.A. was in public school, he was tested for learning disabilities but was found ineligible for special-education services. It was only after T.A. was enrolled in the private school that doctors said he had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other disabilities. So T.A.'s parents applied for tuition reimbursement from their local public school district.

"Education is about the school working with parents and working with the students. It really is an approach that really takes collaboration. And this doesn't feel like collaboration," says Jill Adams, Executive Director of Maine Administrators of Services for Children with Disabilities.

Adams' nonprofit advocates for students, parents and schools. and she says she's still waiting to see whether the ruling has far-reaching implications for school districts across the country. Public schools are already required by federal law to pay for special education, including private placement if the public school can't meet the student's needs.

"My concern would be that you may have more situations where parents will choose to just pull the child rather than try to collaborate with the school and come up with something that works," Adams says. "And the other piece would be I hope this doesn't create more litigation, because then you spend more money in legal fees and that takes away from money that could be spent on children."

Adams isn't critical of the ruling, but she says she's concerned about its potential impact on the relationship between schools and parents. In the case from Oregon, public school officials argued they should not have to pay if parents act unilaterally to send their children to private school.

Adams says Maine parents already have the right to appeal if a school decides that a child does not have a learning disability, and she says Maine's public schools work hard to accommodate children's existing special needs. "Your child would go through a thorough evaluation, and then there would be another meeting to look at all those evaluation results and determine whether the child qualifies as a child with a disability under our Maine law," she says. "And at that point, if the school were to say no this child doesn't, but the parent feels they do, then the parent has the right to take that to a due process hearing."

There are about 34,000 students who qualify for special education services in Maine. And while that number has remained about the same over the last decade, the cost of services has risen from $187 million to $355 million a year.

State Department of Education Commissioner Susan Gendron is trying to remain positive about the ruling, saying it's underscored by a new Maine law that requires schools to look at the needs of all students "who's meeting success and who's not, whether they're special ed or not. So I think for us in Maine it will elevate that conversation absolutely and in a positive way and hopefully the benefit of this will be true collaboration with parents and the school systems about what's best for kids."

Gendron says the ruling is raising alarm in public schools, but she says the obligation to students with disabilities remains the same. She says she hopes schools and parents will continue to follow the traditional process of assessing students' needs and the resources available to them before pulling children out of public school and enrolling in private school.

"If you haven't worked through the processes that are in federal law about identification, engagement of the parents, I would hope the courts would, in fact, say that unilateral decision was not what was intended," she says. "But I do think it's a worry for us."

In recent years some school districts, including New York City, have fought parents who seek reimbursement for private special education expenses but never enrolled their children in public schools.