On June 22, the U.S. Supreme Court implicitly gave school districts nationwide monetary incentive to do what they were supposed to be doing all along — provide free appropriate public education to all children — rather than to simply buy their way out of the problem. In Forest Grove School District v. T.A., the Court broadened its interpretation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), effectively making it much easier for parents of special-needs children to receive reimbursement for private school education of their children.
Prior to Forest Grove, many courts held that reimbursement under the IDEA required that the special-needs student have been previously enrolled in a public school program. In Forest Grove, the Court ruled that school districts could be required to reimburse parents who unilaterally move their special-needs child from public school to private school, even if that child had not previously been in a public school special-education program, provided that the private placement was in the best interest of the child.
Reactions to this decision have run the gamut from appalled to elated. Regardless of our opinions on the decision, though, Forest Grove is now law and, from a purely financial standpoint, the potential ramifications for schools who do not adapt to the new requirements are enormous. In 2007-2008, under the previous, more-restrictive reading of the IDEA, the New York City school district reimbursed nearly 4,400 students at a cost of nearly $89 million, an average of over $20,000 per year. Currently, Arkansas spends about $8,400 per student per year. Even adjusting for cost differences between New York and Arkansas, with the relaxed requirements for reimbursement, it is easy to imagine what would happen to the Little Rock School District if a large percentage of the 2,715 special education students were suddenly moved to private schools.
With dollar signs of this magnitude hanging over our collective heads, districts are faced with the requirements of identifying special-needs students and providing them with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) under the IDEA, and with identifying those students early enough that an effective IEP can be in place before a parent has reason to consider removing her child from public schools. Satisfaction of these requirements is going to require nothing less than a rounding of the educational globe.
The first change that must be accomplished is recognition that special-needs students are not a separate pool of costs, but, rather, general education students in need of additional services. The old model, where special-needs costs are calculated separately, provides too much incentive for incorrect identification; a successful new model must meet our children's special education needs by using a school's comprehensive resources and by viewing all students as part of the general education program first.
A second needed alteration is a commitment by the schools to work with parents from day one rather than simply during the formation of a child's IEP. By making families more involved in the early assessment and intervention decisions for our children, schools will locate special-needs students earlier and more efficiently and will have assistance in providing the individualized attention. Most importantly, this school-parent relationship will create a coordinated and integrated set of services for the special-needs children and will lessen the likelihood that a parent would find the child's IEP insufficient and attempt to place that student in private education.
Opponents of the Forest Grove decision might read it to say that parents can sit back, do nothing, and still be entitled to reimbursement, thus parents really have little incentive to work with the school. Yet such an argument overlooks a parent's already-existing incentives, such as keeping her child in the same school with his friends, rather than moving him to a private institution, and avoiding a situation where parents with multiple children have a special-needs child in a private institution — for which they receive reimbursement — and a child in the public school district that is now teetering on bankruptcy due to those reimbursement costs. Even so, there is little doubt that school districts could do more to incentivize the cooperation between parents and schools. Thankfully, such actions are myriad in possibility.
In the end, all the hand-wringing over Forest Grove seems to stem from the perceived choice being given to schools: Adapt or face massive financial repercussions. In reality, though, the choice is far simpler and far less sinister: Provide the services you should already have been providing or be willing to pay someone else to do it for you. That's not a doomsday scenario so much as a wake-up call.
Matthew Campbell is a Little Rock lawyer.