A recent decision by the Washington, D.C. district court in the case of N.T. v. District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS) considered the issue of tuition reimbursement for a private special education school, The Lab School. Based on my reading of the case, D.C. appears to differ from New York in two noteworthy ways: D.C. is a one-tiered system whereby appeals from administrative law judge determinations are appealed directly into state or federal court; and D.C. state law places the burden of proof on the party bringing the claim (whereas, in New York, that burden lies with the school district except in tuition reimbursement cases). I find it curious that, in paragraph II reviewing the law, the Court does not explicitly state the legal standard for tuition reimbursement. Regardless, the first step in any analysis about tuition reimbursement is whether FAPE was offered by the school district. Everyone seems to agree that the child needed a small class setting and that the IEP created by the school district failed to include a recommendation for a small class. The Court, however, seemed to bypass that point by focusing on what could have been recommended: "In the present case, the parents have not even argued, let alone demonstrated, that Key Elementary or another D.C. public school could not provide N.T. an appropriate education with smaller class sizes for N.T.'s core academic subjects. . . . If DCPS had been unwilling or unable to modify the IEP to meet N.T.'s needs for small group instruction, then private placement and reimbursement might be an appropriate remedy." What does it matter if the district could have put it on the IEP, or could have recommended a school with a small class. It didn't. The Court goes on to say "Because DCPS can craft an appropriate IEP to provide a FAPE, it is not required to pay for N.T.'s placement at The Lab School." So everyone agrees that the district did not provide FAPE, but theoretically, it could have, so they're off the hook? Also confusing is the Court's analysis of the appropriateness of the private placement. Footnote 3 says: "Plaintiffs are correct that a parental placement need not be the least restrictive environment. They are incorrect, however, in arguing that the Hearing Officer could not consider whether The Lab School was the least restrictive environment in evaluating whether private placement was the proper remedy." Huh? I'm not sure what to make of this decision but it looks like, barring an appeal, the parents won't be getting reimbursed.
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