Working with two state school boards associations, the National School Boards Association (NSBA) has signed on to amicus briefs in cases that would impact school districts’ ability to provide special education services to students.
These amicus briefs—one filed in the U. S. Supreme Court in two California cases, the other in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit dealing with a Kentucky case—ask the courts to reconsider rulings that misinterpret the main federal special education law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
In the Supreme Court brief, which addresses two consolidated cases, Tustin Unified School District v. K.M. and Poway Unified School District v. D.H., NSBA and the California School Boards Association encourage the U.S. Supreme Court to hear these cases, contending that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit misapplied the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), rather than correctly applying IDEA, to a case involving a California student with a hearing impairment.
In its ruling, the Ninth Circuit deferred to an interpretation of the ADA urged by the U.S. Department of Justice, which argued that school districts have additional obligations under the ADA’s “effective communication” regulation, even when they have put in place Individualized Education Programs (IEP) that meet the IDEA’s requirement to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE).
“It is important for the U.S. Supreme Court to take this case, as the Ninth Circuit opinion ignores 20 years of precedents on special education law and represents yet another example of a federal agency exceeding its authority over educational decision making,” NSBA Executive Director Thomas J. Gentzel said.
In each of the California cases, the school district denied the request of a high school student with hearing disabilities to use a word-for-word translation service in the classroom, but offered other accommodations. In each case, both the administrative hearing officers and the district court found that the school district had fully complied with the IDEA. However, the Ninth Circuit sided with the plaintiffs, saying that the ADA imposes additional obligations not covered under IDEA.
Under IDEA’s cooperative team approach to assessing the appropriate accommodations for children with disabilities, a multidisciplinary IEP team determines a student’s educational needs based on comprehensive evaluations by specialists in the field. Under the Ninth Circuit’s decision, NSBA argues, school districts must give “primary consideration” to the parents’ desire for specific services, programs, placements or supports—regardless of whether they are appropriate.
In a third case, Boone County Board of Education v. N.W. , NSBA is joining with the Kentucky School Boards Association in urging the Sixth Circuit to reverse a district court decision involving a student with autism and a speech disorder. The issue before the court is whether a school district must pay for a private school placement unilaterally chosen by the student’s parents when the district has made a “free and appropriate public education” (FAPE) available to the student.
“The decision in Boone County Board of Education v. N.W., as it stands, would force cash-strapped school districts to bear the high costs of private placements during litigation, even when a court ultimately rules that the district has made FAPE available in a public school setting,” said NSBA General Counsel Francisco M. Negrón Jr. “The lower court’s decision sets a terrible precedent that prolongs due process and court proceedings and discourages informal resolution of special education disputes through mediated settlement. It must be reversed.”