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    FLORENCE COUNTY SCH. DIST. FOUR v. CARTER, ___ U.S. ___ (1993)

    U.S. Supreme Court

    FLORENCE COUNTY SCH. DIST. FOUR v. CARTER, ___ U.S. ___ (1993)

    FLORENCE COUNTY SCH. DIST. FOUR v. CARTER, ___ U.S. ___ (1993)

    FLORENCE COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT FOUR, ET AL., PETITIONERS v.
    SHANNON CARTER, A MINOR BY AND THROUGH HER FATHER, AND NEXT FRIEND,
    EMORY D. CARTER CERTIORARI TO THE UNITED STATES COURT OF APPEALS FOR THE FOURTH CIRCUIT
    No. 91-1523

    Argued October 6, 1993
    Decided November 9, 1993

    After respondent Shannon Carter, a student in petitioner public school district, was classified as learning disabled, school officials met with her parents to formulate an individualized education program (IEP), as required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. 1400 et seq. Shannon's parents requested a hearing to challenge the proposed IEP's appropriateness. In the meantime, Shannon's parents enrolled her in Trident Academy, a private school specializing in educating children with disabilities. After the state and local educational authorities concluded that the IEP was adequate, Shannon's parents filed this suit, 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. The District Court ruled in the parents' favor, holding that the proposed IEP violated IDEA, and that the education Shannon received at Trident was "appropriate" and in substantial compliance with IDEA's substantive requirements, even though the school did not comply with all of the Act's procedures. In affirming, the Court of Appeals 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 of the requirements of 1401(a)(18).

    Held:

    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 Page II school that provides an education that is otherwise proper under IDEA, but does not meet all of 1401(a)(18)'s requirements. Pp. 4-8.

      (a) In School Comm. of Burlington v. Department of Ed. of Mass., 471 U.S. 359, 369 -370, the Court recognized the right of parents who disagree with a proposed IEP to unilaterally withdraw their child from public school and place the child in private school, and held that IDEA's grant of equitable authority empowers a court to order school authorities retroactively to reimburse the parents if the court ultimately determines that the private placement, rather than the proposed IEP, is proper under the Act. P. 4.

      (b) Trident's failure to meet 1401(a)(18)'s definition of a "free appropriate public education" does not bar Shannon's parents from reimbursement, because the section's requirements cannot be read as applying to parental placements. The 1401(a)(18) requirements that the education be "provided . . . under public supervision and direction," and that the IEP be designed by "a representative of the local educational agency" and "establish[ed]," "revise[d]," and "review[ed]" by the agency, will never be met in the context of a parental placement. Therefore, to read them as applying to parental placements would effectively eliminate the right of unilateral withdrawal recognized in Burlington, and would defeat IDEA's purpose of ensuring that children with disabilities receive an education that is both appropriate and free. Similarly, the 1401(a)(18)(B) requirement that the school meet the standards of the state educational agency does not apply to private parental placements. It would be inconsistent 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. Parents' failure to select a state-approved program in favor of an unapproved option does not itself bar reimbursement. Pp. 4-7.

      (c) The school district's argument that allowing reimbursement for parents such as Shannon's puts an unreasonable burden on financially strapped local educational authorities is rejected. Reimbursement claims need not worry school officials who conform to IDEA's mandate to either 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. Moreover, parents who unilaterally change their child's placement during the pendency of IDEA review proceedings are entitled to reimbursement only if a federal court concludes both that the Page III public placement violated IDEA and that the private placement was proper under the Act. Finally, total reimbursement will not be appropriate if a court fashioning discretionary equitable relief under IDEA determines that the cost of the private education was unreasonable. P. 7-8.

    950 F.2d 156 (C.A. 9 1991), affirmed.

    O'CONNOR, J., delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court. [ FLORENCE COUNTY SCH. DIST. FOUR v. CARTER, ___ U.S. ___ (1993) , 1]  

    JUSTICE O'CONNOR delivered the opinion of the Court.

    The Individuals 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.

    I

    Respondent 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. [ FLORENCE COUNTY SCH. DIST. FOUR v. CARTER, ___ U.S. ___ (1993) , 2]   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 of 1988.

    Shannon's 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 of 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, [ FLORENCE COUNTY SCH. DIST. FOUR v. CARTER, ___ U.S. ___ (1993) , 3]   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.

    The Court 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 has 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).

    The court 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. [ FLORENCE COUNTY SCH. DIST. FOUR v. CARTER, ___ U.S. ___ (1993) , 4]  

    II

    In School 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." Ibid.

    As this 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 otherwise 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 [ FLORENCE COUNTY SCH. DIST. FOUR v. CARTER, ___ U.S. ___ (1993) , 5]   of a "free appropriate public education." * We hold that they are not, because 1401(a)(18)'s requirements cannot be read as applying to parental placements.

    Section 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 designed by "a representative of the local educational agency," 20 U.S.C. 1401(a)(20) (1988 ed., Supp. IV), and must be "establish[ed]," "revise[d]," and "review[ed]" 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 [ FLORENCE COUNTY SCH. DIST. FOUR v. CARTER, ___ U.S. ___ (1993) , 6]   statutory purpose.

    Nor do 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.

    Furthermore, 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, [ FLORENCE COUNTY SCH. DIST. FOUR v. CARTER, ___ U.S. ___ (1993) , 7]   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 .

    III

    The 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.

    There 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.

    Moreover, 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 [ FLORENCE COUNTY SCH. DIST. FOUR v. CARTER, ___ U.S. ___ (1993) , 8]   private school placement was proper under the Act.

    Finally, 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.

    So ordered.

    [ Footnote * ] Section 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. . . ." [ FLORENCE COUNTY SCH. DIST. FOUR v. CARTER, ___ U.S. ___ (1993) , 1]  

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