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The Supreme Court released another important decision today - that ruling makes it easier for parents of special education students to get reimbursed for private school tuition. The case comes from Oregon. The family of a high school student wants the local district to pay for a boarding school their son attended.

As NPR's Larry Abramson reports, school administrators around the country now fear the ruling will lead to a jump in private school placements.

LARRY ABRAMSON: The student in this case is known simply as T.A. The Forest Grove School District outside Portland, Oregon, noticed that T.A. was having problems in high school, but suspected marijuana use was the cause and refused to give him special education services. Toward the end of his junior year, T.A.'s parents pulled him out of public school and sent him to a private residential academy.

For the school district, that's where the parents stepped over the line and lost the ability to seek reimbursement. Francisco Negron is with the National School Boards Association.

Mr. FRANCISCO NEGRON (National School Boards Association): Congress really intended for parents and schools to work together to find the best placement for a child with special needs.

ABRAMSON: The Forest Grove School District argued the parents should be barred from recovering the $65,000 in tuition. But today, in a 6 to 3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled that the family can sue. T.A's parents had raised concerns about their son before they pulled him out of school. And a school psychologist questioned whether the student might have attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder.

Attorney David Salmons, who represented T.A.'s family, says the history of the litigation shows that the district had not done its job.

Mr. DAVID SALMONS (Attorney): And the hearing officer concluded that any further notice to the school district would've served no purpose, because the school district was applying the wrong legal standard and would have denied the child services in all circumstances.

ABRAMSON:

Writing for the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens noted that schools have an affirmative obligation to, quote, "identify, locate and evaluate all children with disabilities," unquote. Stevens said it would be wrong to reward the school district for refusing to find a child eligible for special services.

Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas signed on to a dissent by Justice David Souter, saying Congress only envisioned private tuition payments for students who already had been receiving special education services in public schools.

For Lindsay Jones of the Council for Exceptional Children, the majority decision will hurt school systems because it removes the incentive for parents to collaborate with educators.

Ms. LINDSAY JONES (Council for Exceptional Children): Under that situation, parents don't have to even seek special education services or work with the district before they ask that the district pay for their private placement.

ABRAMSON: Jones' group, which represents special educators, wants Congress to rewrite the special education law and clarify the limits on when parents can ask for private school tuition. But attorneys for families say this decision will not lead to a spike in private placements.

Mr. SALMONS: Keep in mind that the decision today does not guaranty the parents' reimbursement for private school tuition.

ABRAMSON: David Salmons, the attorney for T.A., knows that the family has only won the right to argue for reimbursement.

Mr. SALMONS: The parents have the burden of showing that there was a failure to provide a free appropriate public education. And they have the burden to show that their private placement is - was appropriate.

ABRAMSON: Private placements get a lot of publicity and are blamed for soaking up education dollars. But they make up only a small percentage of special ed cases, and many are resolved with the district's consent. Lawyers for special ed students say they hope this decision will stop cases from going to court by encouraging districts to act quickly to identify students with learning disabilities.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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