WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court strengthened the rights of parents of children with disabilities on Monday and dealt a potentially costly setback to cash-strapped public school districts across the nation.
Ruling in the case of a high school boy from Oregon, the court held that his parents may obtain a full reimbursement for the cost of sending him to a private school because the public school system failed to provide the special education he needed.
The parents' "unilateral" decision to take their child out of the public system does not shield public officials from paying the cost, the court said by a 6-3 vote.
The ruling in Forest Grove School District vs. T.A. does not mean parents can turn their backs on a public school program and automatically require public officials to pay them for the cost of private schooling. The parents' right to a reimbursement is triggered only when a judge finds that public officials failed in their duty to provide a "free, appropriate" education for a child with a mental or physical disability.
In the Oregon case, the boy was tested by a school psychologist, but officials concluded he did not have a learning disability and was not entitled to special education. Later, his parents were told by outside experts their son had attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and they enrolled him in a private residential school that charged $5,200 a month.
They eventually sought a reimbursement for $65,000, and they won before an administrative law judge, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco and now the Supreme Court.
The National School Boards Assn. and other education groups had urged the high court to deny the right to a reimbursement to parents who acted on their own and enrolled a child in a private school. The justices refused to do so because, in this case at least, the fault appeared to lie with the school district.
"We hope this will prove to be limited. Most parents do try to work with the school district," said Naomi Gittins, a lawyer for the school boards group.
School lawyers said the ruling did not focus on the more common situation in which parents and school officials disagree on the proper program for a child with a disability. In those situations, the law calls for a series of appeals so the two sides can resolve their differences, or a judge can decide which option is better.
In the Oregon case, by contrast, the parents did not go into the appeals process until after their child had been turned down for special education and he was enrolled in the private program.
"All this decision establishes is that if the school district falls down on the job, the parents are not precluded from seeking a reimbursement," said Terri Keville, a lawyer for the Disability Rights Legal Center in Los Angeles.
Monday's ruling follows a decade of heated disputes over the high cost of private schooling for special education and claims from parents who wanted to be reimbursed.
Congress in 1997 limited reimbursements for parents who moved their child to a private school without notifying public officials. But the high court said that provision did not apply to cases in which public officials refused to offer any special education to a child who needed it.
Justice John Paul Stevens said the court has consistently held that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires public officials to provide special education to all children who need it.
"We conclude that IDEA authorizes reimbursement for the cost of private special-education services when a school district fails to provide a free, appropriate public education," he wrote in the opinion, "regardless of whether the child previously received special education or related services through the public school."
The court's vote did not follow the usual liberal-versus-conservative pattern. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen G. Breyer and Samuel A. Alito Jr. formed the majority.
The dissenters -- David H. Souter, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas -- worried about the costs of special education, which can amount to "as much as 20% of public school's general operating budgets," Souter wrote.