FAPE According to the Third Circuit

In two recent cases, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals found that a school district provided a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to two students who requested continued placement in private school.  In both cases, the Third Circuit found that the students’ individualized education plans (IEPs) were sufficient, met the requirements of the Individuals with Disability Education Act (IDEA), and therefore, the students were not entitled to compensatory private education.

In the case of C.W. v. the Rose Tree Media School District, the student had attended a private school for girls from elementary school until the end of her ninth grade year.  Just before the end of her ninth grade year, the student, who suffered from ADHD, withdrew from private school and enrolled in the public school district.  However, she did not begin attending immediately while awaiting the results of the school district’s evaluation of her disability.  She completed her 9th grade that year at a different private school than she had been attending. Prior to the beginning of the subsequent school year, the school district issued its multi-disciplinary evaluation and an IEP suggesting that placement in the school district’s public schools was appropriate.  The parents rejected the IEP and requested a due process hearing.  The student was subsequently enrolled in yet a third private school.

The hearing officer at the due process hearing found that the school district had developed an appropriate IEP.  The parents appealed and the decision of the hearing officer was affirmed by the appeals panel.  The student filed suit in federal court seeking an award of either tuition reimbursement or compensatory education due to an alleged violation of her procedural due process rights under the IDEA.  The student’s claim was not that the IEP itself was inappropriate but that the school district had caused an undue 14-month delay between the request for a due process hearing and holding the hearing.  The court held that while there may have been delay by the school district in holding a due process hearing, the delay did not cause the school district to be liable for compensatory education or tuition reimbursement because it had always offered FAPE. Thus, while there was delay, there was no harm.

In N.M. v. the School District of Philadelphia, the student was eight years old and suffered from a pervasive development disorder which caused deficits in language skills and auditory processing.  Other impairments restricted the student’s ability to socialize with other students and to pay attention in class.  The student spent his first two years at a private school for students with language-based learning disabilities. 

In March of 2007, a full battery of tests was completed.  The school district’s recommendations were that the student be placed in public school and that his instructional time be split between a regular classroom and a special education learning support classroom.  The parents rejected the proposed IEP, requested a due process hearing, and continued enrolling the student in a private school.  The hearing officer at the due process hearing concluded that the student was not eligible for tuition reimbursement because the IEP developed by the school district provided FAPE.  The appeals panel affirmed, finding that the IEP was appropriate.

The student filed an action in federal court seeking tuition reimbursement.  The district court concluded that the school district had provided FAPE and that enrollment in a private school was not the least restrictive environment.  The Third Circuit affirmed, stating that the IEP developed by the school district was reasonably calculated to enable the student to receive meaningful educational benefits in light of the student’s intellectual potential.  Specifically, the court found that the combination of special education classroom learning plus regular mainstream classroom learning would help the student address social interaction deficits.  The court also found that the school district’s offer to provide one-on-one support also demonstrated that the school district provided FAPE. 

As these cases from the Third Circuit demonstrate, students with special needs are not automatically entitled to private school tuition reimbursement.  If a school district’s proposed IEP provides FAPE, even with placement in the regular education classroom, the district has adequately met its duty.