A few days ago, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals decided the case of C.B. v. Special School District No. 1, Minneapolis, Minnesota. This case involved a child with a learning disability who had spent kindergarten through the fifth grade in the public school system. He made very little, if any, academic progress during that time. His parents, therefore, moved him to a private special education program for the sixth grade and filed a claim for reimbursement for the cost of the program.
At the conclusion of a due process hearing, the administrative law judge (ALJ) determined that the child was entitled to reimbursement for tuition because the school district had failed to provide appropriate education and the private school was appropriate. The case made its way up to the federal district court and the judge reversed the ALJ's decision on the grounds that, because all the students there had learning disabilities and received special education, it was not the least restrictive environment and was therefore not appropriate under federal law. The judge also found that the district could offer an appropriate program (even though, in reality, it had not done so in a timely way).
The 8th Circuit reversed the district court and explained that the student's minimal progress was not enough to show that the public school program was "reasonably calculated to lead to academic progress." The record showed that the gap in reading skills between the child and his peers continued to widen. When the child was in the sixth grade he was only reading on a first grade level - in spite of IQ tests reflecting that he was capable of a lot more. Although a school district is not obligated to maximize a child's potential, it is obligated to provide individualized education and services that will provide real educational benefit. It's still a case-by-case determination. But, in this instance, this kind of slight, barely noticeable progress for a child with average intellectual ability and a positive attitude toward school/work is not sufficient.
The court also reminded the school district that a private school placement does not have to meet all of the strict requirements that a public school might. Although federal law provides that children should be educated in the least restrictive environment, a private school does not have to satisfy this requirement in order to be appropriate. The court explained that the concept of least restrictive environment comes from Congress wanting to prevent "relegating handicapped children to private institutions or warehousing them in special classes." But here, the private school was able to provide this child with an educational benefit and the decision to place him there was a result of the school district's failure to fulfill its obligation. Therefore, the mere fact that the school contains mostly special education students and few mainstreaming opportunities is not necessarily an impediment to reimbursement. Here it was not an impediment and the parents were awarded reimbursement.