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School Law Update: What is the Big IDEA?

Posted by:  Mary Ann Stewart

In education law, IDEA stands for The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  IDEA is the nation’s federal special education law that ensures public schools serve the educational needs of students with disabilities. The fundamental purpose for IDEA is for School Districts to provide an individualized education for children with educational disabilities in a public school setting alongside their other, non-disabled peers – also known as the least restrictive environment.  Thus, the “idea” behind IDEA is to encourage and promote inclusion of disabled students in the public schools rather than isolation.

Recently, there has been a parental trend to re-define IDEA’s fundamental purpose of educating disabled students in the least restrictive environment.  Instead proponents seek to place individual disabled students into more restrictive private school settings. Private school placements create a more restrictive, less inclusive educational setting because more often than not, disabled students in these settings are not educated alongside their non-disabled peers; they have little to no interaction with non-disabled peers; and are not given comparable educational offerings as their non-disabled peers.

Thus, the debate is whether IDEA’s fundamental purpose of inclusion can or should be ignored to serve parental preferences for private school placement even when a Court has found that the School District can provide a free and appropriate public education to a disabled child.  Should public resources for education be spent on developing specialized offerings for multiple disabled children in public schools, or should those resources be diverted to provide an individual disabled child a private education at public expense?

The United States Supreme Court has an opportunity to weigh in on this debate.  The Supreme Court is considering a request for discretionary review filed in  Ridley Sch. Dist. v. M.R. (SCOTUS, Certiorari, July 28, 2014).  At issue is a decision issued by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, extending a School District’s obligation to pay private school tuition under IDEA’s stay put provisions up through final decision by the appellate courts, even though the School District prevailed in the underlying case and showed that it could educate the child in the public school setting, and meet IDEA’s requirements.  In an amicus brief, NSBA has argued that the Third Circuit panel’s decision is erroneous because (1) it creates a perverse incentive for parents to prolong frivolous appeals simply to reap the benefit of private school tuition funded by public dollars; and (2) it imposes a costly financial burden on school districts, to the detriment of other non-disabled students, by requiring school districts to continue funding unnecessary individual private school placements after a District Court has determined that the school district has provided a free and appropriate public education.

It should be interesting to see if the Supreme Court takes up the case, and if so, whether it will uphold or revise the IDEA’s fundamental purpose of inclusion.

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