Recent Special Education Reimbursement Case

Under the IDEA, states receiving federal funds are required to “provide ‘all children with disabilities’ a free appropriate public education [FAPE].” A free appropriate public education consists of special education and related services tailored to meet the unique needs of a particular child, which are reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits.  To ensure that qualifying children receive a FAPE, a school district must create an individualized education program (‘IEP’) for each such child. An IEP is “a written statement that sets out the child’s present educational performance, establishes annual and short-term objectives for improvements in that performance, and describes the specially designed instruction and services that will enable the child to meet those objectives,  and it “must be likely to produce progress, not regression, and must afford the student with an opportunity greater than mere trivial advancement.

In New York, Committees on Special Education (“CSEs”) are responsible for creating IEPs. They are “comprised of members appointed by the local school district’s board of education, and must include the student’s parent(s), a regular or special education teacher, a school board representative, a parent representative, and others. Parents who believe their child is not being provided a FAPE “may unilaterally enroll the child in a private school and seek tuition reimbursement from the school district.

Recently, a federal district court in New York ruled that a student’s father was entitled to reimbursement for his son’s private school tuition after a person at his son’s school said that the school was not appropriate for his son and suggested he seek an alternative placement. L.R. v. New York City Dep’t of Educ., No. 15CV1542-FBRML, 2016 WL 3390413 (E.D.N.Y. June 20, 2016). The district court credited the findings of the Independent Hearing Officer (“IHO”), which differed from the State Review Officer.  The IHO’s decision may be appealed to a State Review Officer (“SRO”). The SRO is the final arbiter of whether the state and the district have afforded the student a free  appropriate public education. Although the SRO is the final state administrative decision maker, the district court deferred to the IHO’s analysis because the SRO’s determinations were “insufficiently reasoned to merit deference.” This willingness to defer to the IHO is significant in that it it indicates that the Courts may look more closely at the SRO’s rationale. If the Court determines that the SRO does not adequately support its decision, it may more readily defer to the IHO.