What’s the Big IDEA? Picking Winners and Losers in Education

Do disabled children in Oregon have more legal rights to a solid education than students who are not disabled? A recent U.S. Supreme Court interpretation of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) indicates that they do.

In a recent case arising out of Oregon’s Forest Grove School District, parents of a struggling high school boy asked the school district to evaluate their son for learning disabilities. The school district failed to diagnose the boy with a disability. Subsequently, a private specialist diagnosed him with ADHD and other learning and memory disabilities and recommended that he would do better in a different learning environment. The parents took the advice, and enrolled their son in an expensive private academy that addressed his special needs. Then they sued the school district for reimbursement for the private school expenses (of $6,400 per month) and won.

While this may sound shocking at first, it is actually a small step from prior established law. Under the IDEA, states that accept certain federal education funding must provide disabled students with a “free and appropriate public education.” The IDEA requires that schools identify disabled children and provide them with an Individual Education Plan. A previous Supreme Court ruling from 1985 requires a school to reimburse parents for the costs of a private education when the school fails to provide the “free and appropriate public education.” In this recent Forest Grove case, the Supreme Court has simply affirmed that this rule still applies in spite of an ambiguous 1997 amendment to the statute. The Court ruled that the school must reimburse parents even if the child had not “previously received special education and related services” from a public school.

This case brings up some other interesting issues. To have the statute’s guarantee of a “free and appropriate public education,” a child must have a disability. So what happens when a child has difficulty learning because of her unique needs, but her needs do not qualify her as “disabled”? When does trouble learning become a disability? How fuzzy is that line?

The line is very fuzzy. For example, experts debate the proper method for diagnosing learning disabilities, or whether such labels have any useful meaning, when every child has a unique learning style and pace. The IDEA itself recognizes the difficulty of diagnosing a disability and requires the school to use more than one method. This fuzziness has disturbing implications.

Imagine a student, Ana, from a low-income family. Ana has trouble learning and is struggling at her public school and would do much better with a more hands-on curriculum, but she is not classified as disabled and qualifying for the accompanying protections. At the same time, her friend Ben, from a wealthy family, is diagnosed with a learning disability. The school fails to provide Ben with an “appropriate” education and must pay for Ben to attend a special school that caters to his need. Ana is stuck in her same learning situation that does not work for her unique needs, without a way out. Yet Ben’s family (who could afford private school anyway) is able to choose a school that works with his needs, on the district’s dime.

It is inequitable to arbitrarily entitle only a portion of students to a free and appropriate education. It makes sense in our current structure that we require school districts to pay for a disabled child’s private education when the public school failed his needs because it provides accountability. A parent can threaten to place her disabled child in private school at the district’s expense when the child is slipping through the cracks. However, it is crazy to entitle one child to a free $65,000 per year private education, while denying another child the right to an education at a more typical private elementary school that could even cost less than one at her public school. Why should the government choose winners and losers? Why not, instead, allow parents an equal opportunity to find a winning fit for their children?

Education tax credits or vouchers could provide greater opportunity to every child to get an education that meets their individual needs. While they would not cover a $65,000 education, they would go a long way toward empowering parents to find the school that best fits their children’s needs.

In Oregon, this could work particularly well, since the average private school tuition is actually less than what we pay per student in the public system. In Oregon, vouchers are probably unconstitutional. However, tax credits for K-12 education expenses or for donations to scholarship programs for low-income children could empower every parent to find an appropriate education for his or her child’s distinctive needs, public or private. This would improve education outcomes for our state, improving test scores and the graduation rate, according to the highest quality research studies.

Arbitrary lines like those created by the IDEA are infuriatingly unfair. A disabled child is neither more nor less deserving of an appropriate education than a non-disabled child. With such a beautiful variety of schools in Oregon, we should empower each parent to choose the right one for his or her child, rather than delegating that power to the public school district.


For additional sources for this article, view it here.


Christina Martin is Director of the Asset Ownership Project and a policy analyst for the School Choice Project at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market public policy research organization.

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Posted by at 06:00 | Posted in Measure 37 | 7 Comments |Email This Post Email This Post |Print This Post Print This Post
  • teacher

    If vouchers are unconstitutional in Oregon, then maybe it is time for a change to the constitution. We need to put the needs of children before teacher’s unions.

  • Daniel

    My plan to improve education in this country is simple — get rid of every single special education law.

  • Rupert in Springfield

    This seems like a really weird case under current current conditions.

    First of all, the school district did not diagnose this boy with a learning disability? That seems pretty amazing to me because we constantly hear about the huge numbers of children so diagnosed by the schools. We also tend to hear that there is financial incentive for school districts to render this diagnosis as supposedly they get more money per learning disabled student. If that is the case, what happened here?

    Second, the parents went to a specialist and got the diagnosis. OK, maybe they doctor shopped, maybe they did not. The point is the child was diagnosed as learning disabled and that diagnosis does not seem to be in question. At that stage, was the diagnosis presented to the school so they could reassess their position?

    Third, once the diagnoses is rendered why is it then up to the parents to choose whatever course of action pops into their heads? I don’t really see how this follows. Was the diagnosis of such a nature that it was impossible for the public school to render service? Why, at that point, was the child not marched back to the powers that be in the public school system, signed papers of diagnosis in hand, and then placed within that realm of the public school system appropriate to him?

    It would seem to me that something is missing here. The credibility of the diagnosis is not really the question. The question is, why was the school district, which surely must have facilities for ADHD children, not told to accept the child on this basis? If I have a child in a wheel chair my diagnosis is at hand. Am I then allowed to take my child to any private school I like and send the taxpayers the bill? If my child has lower back pain, does the same attend?

    This sounds like a case of one of two things. Either the facts are unclear and thus the ruling appears nuttier than it actually is, or this is a case of a nutty ruling by a judge.

    I am no fan of the public school system, but I am even less of a fan of those who figure out a way to scam any system to rip everyone off. Schools generally name renovated gyms or new buildings after some notable local person. I would suggest that when lack of construction occurs, rather than when it does, the school name the ensuing dilapidation after the parents of this child. Perhaps a computer center with antiquated equipment or a classroom with broken windows could be named after them.

  • Bad Man

    Time to kick the low learning level retards out of the school system. Why give more attention to the future chronic losers and dummies of the world? These people need to be kicked to the curb; as they were in years past.

  • Max

    ADHD is a fake disability.
    Kids have always had these problems and have always figured out how to deal with them.
    What a joke.
    Send this lame wacko to military school.
    His ADHD will soon disappear.
    With parents like these the kid is doomed already.
    Trust me.

  • Anonymous

    ADHD = needs to get his little ass whipped once in a while
    Autistic = stupid

    These are the two most falsely diagnosed “illnesses” out there. The expansion of the definition of Autism fron kids with real problems to kids who are just plain stupid may make a few losers feel better about their DNA, but does an enormous disservice to the kids who really are ill.

  • Linda

    Veneta/Elmira has no facilities for ADHD children. My son had a diagnosis of ADHD prior to requesting help from the school there. They provided nothing. I had to pay for private school myself. Perhaps, I too should have sued them. However, education for my son was more important than the possibility of future gain. My options were pay for private school or pay the lawyer. No money for both.
    Doctors diagnose ADHD, not schools.
    ADHD and Autism are not fake conditions. Try living with children with these conditions and you will know first hand about them. These children are generally very intelligent (not stupid).
    Normal teaching methods in publics schools do not work for children with these conditions. Schools just don’t want to deal with it – a monetary issue.

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