WASHINGTON, DC – “Gilbert F.” is what the boy is called in the court documents and his case, on its surface, is about whether his father should receive reimbursement for special-education services the boy received in a private school setting. But “Board of Education of the City School District of New York v. Tom F., on Behalf of Gilbert F., a Minor Child,” a dispute now before the United States Supreme Court, stands to affect many children in need of special education services, including many who are enrolled in Jewish education programs.
Students with disabilities are entitled by federal law to government-funded educational services. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was originally enacted in 1975 to eliminate discrimination against, or failure to adequately educate, such children.
As the law currently stands, special-education needs are to be provided within existing public schools. However, if an independent hearing officer or court finds that a school district’s program does not suit a particular student, the child may be placed in a private school to receive the necessary educational services, at the government’s expense. Since the evaluation process can be lengthy, some parents opt to place their child in a private school, paying tuition out of pocket; if they eventually prevail in demonstrating the inappropriateness of the public school placement, they are entitled to reimbursement of the tuition costs incurred.
“Gilbert F.” received special educational services in a private school and his parents are seeking reimbursement of the costs. The New York City Board of Education, however, challenged that claim on the grounds that the boy had not previously received services in a public school – something the Board of Education asserts is required by a 1997 amendment to the IDEA. The Board’s position was vindicated by a U.S. District Court in January, 2005.
However, in another recent case, that of “Frank G.,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled otherwise. The court held that the IDEA does not preclude reimbursement of private school tuition even in a case where the student had not received any special education services from the school district itself. All that matters, said that court, is that the parent must demonstrate that the district’s proposed placement would have been inappropriate.
With the issue now before the U.S. Supreme Court, Agudath Israel of America has filed an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief urging the Supreme Court to reject the Board of Education’s position.
The brief argues that requiring a special needs child to “suffer through an inappropriate public school placement as a prerequisite to tuition reimbursement” for a parent’s placing of a child in an appropriate private school environment would constitute an “absurd result.”
“The entire premise of the IDEA,” it asserts, “is that children with special needs, even more so than mainstream children, require an educational setting that is appropriate for their specific circumstances. Getting it wrong could have far-reaching detrimental consequences for the healthy development of the child.”
Agudath Israel further argues that the language of the 1997 amendment does not imply that for parents to receive reimbursement for special-ed services in a private school their child must have first attended a public school program. Rather, asserts the Agudath Israel brief, “any form of special education… services” that were “previously received through a public agency” suffice to qualify parents for reimbursements – even services that may have been furnished in a private school setting.
Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, Agudath Israel’s executive vice president for government and public affairs and principal author of the amicus curiae brief, notes that the High Court’s eventual ruling, expected late this calendar year or early next, could have a significant impact on many Orthodox Jewish families with special needs children.
“Paying the costs for special-ed programs in Jewish schools,” explains Rabbi Zwiebel, “is very difficult and stressful for such families. Their children are entitled to government aid for their educations, and the parents should be able to receive reimbursement, at least for the costs of secular special-ed services, without being forced to jump through an inappropriate and potentially harmful public school hoop.”