Forest Grove: A landmark case for special education

Nov. 12, 2009, 8:45 a.m. | By Nellie Beckett | 10 years, 3 months ago

MCPS special education made headlines in 2005 during the landmark case Schaffer v. Weast, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the burden of proof is upon the party that files suit (usually the families of special education students) when the question exists whether a school district must compensate for private school tuition if the system can't provide for a student's special needs. Now, the Court has taken special education rights one step further with the recent ruling in Forest Grove School District v. T.A., an equally important victory for special education students, their families and the schools that serve them.

In 1975, the landmark decision of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act stated that "No otherwise qualified individual with a disability in the United States . . . [shall] be excluded from the participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance." This decision formed the basis of Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), the policy that requires federal funding for special needs education. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 2004 then held that a FAPE could be achieved through an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for students who meet the federal and state criteria for disability.

Forest Grove can be broken down as such: T.A., a special education student, was allegedly not receiving adequate educational support in the Forest Grove School District in Oregon. After years of litigation in district courts, the Supreme Court held that IDEA requires school districts to reimburse families for private school tuition if the school fails to provide a FAPE and if private school placement is appropriate. This mandate stands regardless of whether a public school provided services, including education and testing for disabilities, prior to the private school placement.

The decision in Forest Grove v. T.A. is crucial for several reasons. Chiefly, it reiterates the right of all students to receive a FAPE in the U.S. The court rightfully recognized that a FAPE can be achieved not only through an IEP specific to each student in need but also through private school instruction if the public school doesn't have the resources for a student's special needs. MCPS is both affluent and capable enough to fund both special education programs and private school tuition and was proven willing to after the outcome of Schaffer v. Weast. However, the broader implications of the Forest Grove decision affect the entire country, so that students in less affluent districts than Montgomery County will be provided with an education specific to their needs.

Detractors who might cry that public schools will spend an untoward amount of money on students with special needs should also take note that only one percent of students with disabilities under the specifications of IDEA are placed in private schools by their parents, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics.

Private school tuition is nonetheless a burden for public school systems (especially less affluent districts) to bear, but the Court decision affirms that the choice is essentially between districts footing private school tuition bills or providing expensive modifications to public schools to accommodate students with special needs.

Public education is a right, not a privilege, no matter the circumstances of the student in question. MCPS has already set the precedent for providing services for disabled students by funding private school education when it's needed, as have countless public school districts across the country. The burden of proof is still on the plaintiff - usually meaning the student's parents who file suit - when an IEP is challenged, but the Forest Grove ruling is still a step in the right direction to ensure that all students receive the education they rightfully deserve.

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