COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT FOUR, et al.
CARTER, a minor by and through her father, and next friend, Emory
of Certiorari to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.
for Petitioners: Donald B. Ayer, Esq., Washington, DC.
for Respondent: Peter W.D. Wright, Esq., Richmond, VA.
for the United States, as Amicus Curiae supporting Respondent: Amy
L. Wax, Esq., Assistant to the Solicitor General, Department of Justice,
Rehnquist, C.J., and Blackmun, Stevens, O’Connor, Scalia, Kennedy,
Souter, Thomas, and Ginsburg, JJ.
DAY O’CONNOR, Associate Justice.
with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 84 Stat. 175, as amended,
20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. (1988 ed. and Supp. IV), requires States
to provide disabled children with a “free appropriate public education,”
§ 1401(a)(18). This case presents the question whether a court
may order reimbursement for parents who unilaterally withdraw their
child from a public school that provides an inappropriate education
under IDEA and put the child in a private school that provides an
education that is otherwise proper under IDEA, but does not meet all
the requirements of § 1401(a)(18). We hold that the court may
order such reimbursement, and therefore affirm the judgment of the
Court of Appeals.
Shannon Carter was classified as learning disabled in 1985, while
a ninth grade student in a school operated by petitioner Florence
County School District Four. School officials met with Shannon’s parents
to formulate an individualized education program (IEP) for Shannon,
as required under IDEA. 20 U.S.C. §§ 1401(a)(18) and (20),
1414(a)(5) (1988 ed. and Supp. IV). The IEP provided that Shannon
would stay in regular classes except for three periods of individualized
instruction per week, and established specific goals in reading and
mathematics of four months’ progress for the entire school year. Shannon’s
parents were dissatisfied, and requested a hearing to challenge the
appropriateness of the IEP. See § 1415(b)(2). Both the local
educational officer and the state educational agency hearing officer
rejected Shannon’s parents’ claim and concluded that the IEP was adequate.
In the meantime, Shannon’s parents had placed her in Trident Academy,
a private school specializing in educating children with disabilities.
Shannon began at Trident in September 1985 and graduated in the spring
parents filed this suit in July 1986, claiming that the school district
had breached its duty under IDEA to provide Shannon with a “free appropriate
public education,” § 1401(a)(18), and seeking reimbursement for
tuition and other costs incurred at Trident. After a bench trial,
the District Court ruled in the parents’ favor. The court held that
the school district’s proposed educational program and the achievement
goals of the IEP “were wholly inadequate” and failed to satisfy the
requirements of the Act. App. to Pet. for Cert 27a. The court further
held that “[a]lthough [Trident Academy] did not comply with all the
procedures outlined in [IDEA],” the school “provided Shannon an excellent
education in substantial compliance with all the substantive requirements”
of the statute. Id. at 37a. The court found that Trident “evaluated
Shannon quarterly, not yearly as mandated in [IDEA], it provided Shannon
with low teacher-student ratios, and it developed a plan which allowed
Shannon to receive passing marks and progress from grade to grade.”
Ibid. The court also credited the findings of its own expert,
who determined that Shannon had made “significant progress” at Trident
and that her reading comprehension had risen three grade levels in
her three years at the school. Id., at 29a. The District Court
concluded that Shannon’s education was “appropriate” under IDEA, and
that Shannon’s parents were entitled to reimbursement of tuition and
other costs. Id., at 37a.
of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit affirmed. 950 F.2d 156 (1991). The
court agreed that the IEP proposed by the school district was inappropriate
under IDEA. It also rejected the school district’s argument that reimbursement
is never proper when the parents choose a private school that is not
approved by the State or that does not comply with all the terms of
IDEA. According to the Court of Appeals, neither the text of the Act
nor its legislative history imposes a “requirement that the private
school be approved by the state in parent-placement reimbursement
cases.” Id., at 162. To the contrary, the Court of Appeals
concluded, IDEA’s state-approval requirement applies only when a child
is placed in a private school by public school officials. Accordingly,
“when a public school system had defaulted on its obligations under
the Act, a private school placement is ‘proper under the Act’ if the
education provided by the private school is ‘reasonably calculated
to enable the child to receive educational benefits.’” Id.,
at 163, quoting Board of Ed. of Hendrick Hudson Central School
Dist. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 207 (1982).
below recognized that its holding conflicted with Tucker v. Bay
Shore Union Free School Dist., 873 F.2d 563, 568 (1989), in which
the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit held that parental placement
in a private school cannot be proper under the Act unless the private
school in question meets the standards of the state education agency.
We granted certiorari, 507 U.S. __ (1993), to resolve this conflict
among the Courts of Appeals.
Comm. of Burlington v. Department of Ed. of Mass., 471 U.S. 359,
369 (1985), we held that IDEA’s grant of equitable authority empowers
a court “to order school authorities to reimburse parents for their
expenditures on private special education for a child if the court
ultimately determines that such placement, rather than a proposed
IEP, is proper under the Act.” Congress intended that IDEA’s promise
of a “free appropriate public education” for disabled children would
normally be met by an IEP’s provision for education in the regular
public schools or in private schools chosen jointly by school officials
and parents. In cases where cooperation fails, however, “parents who
disagree with the proposed IEP are faced with a choice: go along with
the IEP to the detriment of their child if it turns out to be inappropriate
or pay for what they consider to be the appropriate placement.” Id.,
at 370. For parents willing and able to make the latter choice, “it
would be an empty victory to have a court tell them several years
later that they were right but that these expenditures could not in
a proper case be reimbursed by the school officials.” Ibid.
Because such a result would be contrary to IDEA’s guarantee of a “free
appropriate public education,” we held that “Congress meant to include
retroactive reimbursement to parents as an available remedy in a proper
case comes to us, two issues are settled: 1) the school district’s
proposed IEP was inappropriate under IDEA, and 2) although Trident
did not meet the § 1401(a)(18) requirements, it provided an education
other proper under IDEA. This case presents the narrow question whether
Shannon’s parents are barred from reimbursement because the private
school in which Shannon enrolled did not meet the § 1401(a)(18)
definition of a “free appropriate public education.”1 We hold that
they are not, because § 1401(a)(18)’s requirements cannot be
read as applying to parental placements.
1401(a)(18)(A) requires that the education be “provided at public
expense, under public supervision and direction.” Similarly, §
1401(a)(18)(D) requires schools to provide an IEP, which must be designated
by “a representative of the local educational agency,” 20 U.S.C. §
1401(a)(20) (1988 ed., Supp. IV), and must be “establish[ed],” and
“revise[d]” by the agency, § 1414(a)(5). These requirements do
not make sense in the context of a parental placement. In this case,
as in all Burlington reimbursement cases, the parents’ rejection of
the school district’s proposed IEP is the very reason for the parents’
decision to put their child in a private school. In such cases, where
the private placement has necessarily been made over the school district’s
objection, the private school education will not be under “public
supervision and direction.” Accordingly, to read the § 1401(a)(18)
requirements as applying to parental placements would effectively
eliminate the right of unilateral withdrawal recognized in Burlington.
Moreover, IDEA was intended to ensure that children with disabilities
receive an education that is both appropriate and free. Burlington,
supra, at 373. To read the provisions of § 1401(a)(18) to bar
reimbursement in the circumstances of this case would defeat this
we believe that reimbursement is necessarily barred by a private school’s
failure to meet state education standards. Trident’s deficiencies,
according to the school district, were that it employed at least two
faculty members who were not state-certified and that it did not develop
IEPs. As we have noted, however, the § 1401(a)(18) requirements--including
the requirement that the school meet the standards of the state educational
agency, § 1401(a)(18)(B)--do not apply to private parental placements.
Indeed, the school district’s emphasis on state standards is somewhat
ironic. As the Court of Appeals noted, “it hardly seems consistent
with the Act’s goals to forbid parents from educating their child
at a school that provides an appropriate education simply because
that school lacks the stamp of approval of the same public school
system that failed to meet the child’s needs in the first place.”
950 F.2d. at 164. Accordingly, we disagree with the Second Circuit’s
theory that “a parent may not obtain reimbursement for a unilateral
placement if that placement was in a school that was not on [the State’s]
approved list of private” schools. Tucker, 873 F.2d, at 568
(internal quotation marks omitted). Parents’ failure to select a program
known to be approved by the State in favor of an unapproved option
is not itself a bar to reimbursement.
although the absence of an approved list of private schools is not
essential to our holding, we note that parents in the position of
Shannon’s have no way of knowing at the time they select a private
school whether the school meets state standards. South Carolina keeps
no publicly available list of approved private schools, but instead
approves private school placements on a case-by-case basis. In fact,
although public school officials had previously placed three children
with disabilities at Trident, see App. to Pet. for Cert. 28a, Trident
had not received blanket approval from the State. South Carolina’s
case-by-case approval system meant that Shannon’s parents needed the
cooperation of state officials before they could know whether Trident
was state-approved. As we recognized in Burlington, such cooperation
is unlikely in cases where the school officials disagree with the
need for the private placement. 471 U.S., at 372.
school district also claims that allowing reimbursement for parents
such as Shannon’s puts an unreasonable burden on financially strapped
local educational authorities. The school district argues that requiring
parents to choose a state-approved private school if they want reimbursement
is the only meaningful way to allow States to control costs; otherwise
States will have to reimburse dissatisfied parents for any private school
that provides an education that is proper under the Act, no matter how
expensive it may be.
is no doubt that Congress has imposed a significant financial burden
on States and school districts that participate in IDEA. Yet public
educational authorities who want to avoid reimbursing parents for
the private education of a disabled child can do one of two things:
give the child a free appropriate public education in a public setting,
or place the child in an appropriate private setting of the State’s
choice. This is IDEA’s mandate, and school officials who conform to
it need not worry about reimbursement claims.
parents who, like Shannon’s, “unilaterally change their child’s placement
during the pendency of review proceedings, without the consent of
the state or local school officials, do so at their own financial
risk.” Burlington, supra, at 373-374. They are entitled to
reimbursement only if a federal court concludes both that the public
placement violated IDEA, and that the private school placement was
proper under the Act.
we note that once a court holds that the public placement violated
IDEA, it is authorized to “grant such relief as the court determines
is appropriate.” 20 U.S.C. § 1415(e)(2). Under this provision,
“equitable considerations are relevant in fashioning relief,” Burlington,
471 U.S., at 374, and the court enjoys “broad discretion” in so doing,
id., at 369. Courts fashioning discretionary equitable relief under
IDEA must consider all relevant factors, including the appropriate
and reasonable level of reimbursement that should be required. Total
reimbursement will not be appropriate if the court determines that
the cost of the private education was unreasonable.
Accordingly, we affirm the judgment of the Court of Appeals.
1401(a)(18) defines “free appropriate public education” as, special
education and related services that
(A) have been provided at public expense, under public supervision
and direction, and without charge,
(B) meet the standards of the State educational agency,
(C) include an appropriate preschool, elementary, or secondary school
education in the State involved, and
(D) are provided in conformity with the individualized education program.
. . .