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Public schools lose in Court’s tie vote

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KAI RYSSDAL: By long tradition, a tie vote in the Supreme Court means the ruling of lower-tier judges stands. So today’s 4-4 split could translate into some big bills for school districts all over the country.

The justices were considering whether taxpayers have to pick up the tab for a private school education for children with disabilities — our Washington bureau chief John Dimsdale reports:

JOHN DIMSDALE: Federal law guarantees students with special needs an appropriate, and free, public school education. Congress said if public school systems can’t provide a suitable program, they must pay for private placement using the district’s federal education funds.

When Tom Freston applied to the New York City School Board for reimbursement for his learning-disabled son’s private school bills, the city said he should first enroll his son in a special public school program. The younger Freston was already in private school when his learning disabilities were diagnosed.

His parents insisted public schools could not meet their son’s requirements. The lower courts agreed — and a tie in the Supreme Court upholds those rulings.

FRANCISCO NEGRON: The potential impact is severe.

Francisco Negron is general counsel for the National School Boards Association:

NEGRON: The problem here is a set of parents who might have, from the outset, decided they don’t want their child in public school can then place their child unilaterally without consulting the public school system, and then come back for that reimbursement. And potentially it could deprive public schools of hundreds of thousands of dollars, particularly because the special-education needs of children is a costly matter.

Costs vary, depending on the severity of the disability. New York City spends an average $33,000 a year on each of 150,000 students requiring special education.

The Supreme Court’s even split means no nationwide precedent is set. The tie was caused in part by Justice Anthony Kennedy’s recusal for unknown reasons.

Now, public school advocates have their eye on another case dealing with private school reimbursements that’s on its way to the Supreme Court. Their hope is that Justice Kennedy will participate next time, and rule their way.

In Washington, I’m John Dimsdale for Marketplace.

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