Special Education Placement

A Federal District Court judge in Massachusetts has now answered this question in dramatic fashion by ordering reimbursement to parents for several years of tuition paid to a private sectarian (Christian) school which has no special education certified teachers on its staff. The case is called Matthew J. v. Massachusetts Department of Education, 989 F.Supp. 380 (D. Mass. 1998). In Matthew J. the due process hearing officer had found that the school system had failed to provide appropriate special education programs for four years. However, she refused to order tuition reimbursement to Matthew J's. parents. The hearing officer cited two principal reasons for this decision:

  1. that the private school chosen by the parents did not offer "special education" services and did not therefore conform either to IDEA or to state requirements; and
  2. that since the private school in question provides a sectarian religious education, tuition reimbursement would violate both the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution and the Massachusetts Constitution.
The Court rejected this reasoning and ordered reimbursement for all four years of tuition.

In reaching this decision the Court evaluated not whether the parent's choice of school offered a "special education" program, but whether the services, appropriateness of peer grouping, and other elements of the program were appropriately responsive to the student's needs. This student's disabilities were social/emotional rather than "learning disabilities." What educational and psychological professionals had recommended was for him to be in a safe, structured, supportive environment with small teacher-student ratios, appropriate peers, and substantial individual attention in order to learn effectively. The Court found that the program offered by the sectarian school did provide these elements and that the student in fact maintained adequate grades and graduated from high school at the private school. On that basis, the Court concluded that the parents had selected a unilateral placement that was sufficiently "appropriate" to qualify for tuition reimbursement.

In addition to that analysis, the Court pointed out that the school system itself had indicated its approval of this private school by designating it as the placement in two IEPs and seeking the state Department of Education's approval. It was only when the state refused to approve the placement that the school system backed out of supporting it. Along with the school system's failure to offer its own appropriate program -- or for some periods any program at all -- this behavior was probably a critical factor in the Court's decision. Where the hearing officer had found the school system to have failed in its responsibility to provide FAPE for four years and where the school system itself had written the parents' selected school into the IEP, a court would naturally want to find a way to rule for the parents.

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