SCOTUS declines to review major special education case

This is a photograph of an angled view of the front of Supreme Court building which includes two bushes.
Supreme Court will not consider IDEA case

The Supreme Court, in a one-sentence order issued May 18, denied certiorari in one of the year’s most closely watched special education cases.

The lawsuit concerned the extent of the Individuals with Disabilities Act’s “stay put provision,” which comes into play when parents unilaterally transfer their children to private schools because the student’s public school district is failing to provide federally mandated special education services.

Under this provision, districts must reimburse parents for the cost of private school tuition until the parents and district resolve the dispute, or, if necessary, until the end of legal proceedings.

Federal courts are divided as to their interpretation of the term “proceedings.” The D.C. and Sixth Circuits have ruled that the school district’s obligations to reimburse the parents ends when a federal district court makes a determination. For the Third and Ninth Circuits, the district’s obligations continue if the parents appeal the district court’s decision.

The parents in the lawsuit moved their daughter, identified as E.R. in court papers, out of the Ridley School District, near Philadelphia, after the 2007-08 school year. Subsequently, both a federal district court and the Third Circuit, in May 2012, ruled that the school district’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) for E.R. satisfied the IDEA.

Litigation continued as to the extent of the school district’s obligations to reimburse E.R.’s parents. Both the District Court and, on appeal, the Third Circuit ruled in favor of E.R.’s parents, finding that the Ridley School District owed them the cost of E.R.’s private school tuition through May 2012, prompting an appeal to the Supreme Court.

On October 13, the first day of the current term, the Supreme Court requested input from the U.S. Solicitor General as to whether it should review the Third Circuit’s decision.

The Obama Administration responded in a brief, filed April 10, which urged the Court to deny review and let the Third Circuit’s interpretation of the stay-put provision stand.

“That reading of the statue is faithful to the text; it is mandated by the Department of Education’s implementing regulation and other interpretive guidance; and it is consistent with the IDEA’s goal of providing children with disabilities until there is a final resolution of a legal dispute over their educational placement,” the brief stated.

Contrarily, the Ridley School District, as well as a trio of educational associations that filed an amicus brief to the Supreme Court, argue that the Third Circuit’s decision incentivizes parents to prolong legal proceedings and unfairly benefit from filing litigation.

Without clarification from the Supreme Court, this debate will likely continue.