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Special Education Placement

It remains to be seen how far other courts and hearing officers will go in following the lead of Matthew J. Even the Matthew J. court would probably not have approved reimbursement for this placement if experts had indicated that Matthew needed specific special educational services to address, for example, a reading disability. Even for this student, however, approving tuition reimbursement under IDEA for a school that has no "special education" program certainly pushes the boundaries of Florence County S.D. as far out as they are likely to go.

Whether other decision makers are willing to go that far or not, however, the underlying principal of Matthew J. should survive:

    When parents make a unilateral placement because their school system has failed to provide FAPE, they should not, and cannot, be required to meet the same exacting standards that a school system must meet when it provides a special education program.
Parents are not normally educators or related professionals themselves and can only do their best in trying to make up for what their school system has failed to do for their child.

As for whether reimbursement for tuition at a religious sectarian school is prohibited by the Establishment Clause of the U. S. Constitution or similar provisions of a state's Constitution, the Court found that tuition reimbursement would not advance religion in a way that violates those provisions. The Court reasoned that such tuition payments would not be made in order to finance religious activity and would not have that effect; their purpose and effect is only to provide appropriate special education services to a student eligible to receive those services. "In short," said the Court, this school's "Christian identity was happenstance, and reimbursement would not offend the Constitution." [Matthew J. 989 F.Supp. at p. 392.] This holding is consistent with the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Agostini v. Felton, - U.S. - , 117 S.Ct. 1997, 2010 (1997) and Zobrest v. Catalina Foothills Sch. Dist.



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