District of Columbia Wins One Battle in Special Education War

By Dyanna Quizon, Esq. on December 09, 2011 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

In the ongoing war between parents of special education students and the District of Columbia, the District won a significant battle on Friday.

Reversing a ruling by a lower court judge, a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals held that an injunction placed against the District for failing to pay special education services on time should be given another look.

The injunction has been in place for 14 years, ever since special education students were forced to attend private schools at public expense because District public schools couldn't accommodate their needs. The parents of the children subsequently sued the District in Petties Martin v. District of Columbia, claiming in part that the city's inability to make timely payments to private schools jeopardized their children's right to an education guaranteed under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The city reportedly spends $280 million a year in private tuition and transportation for special education students.

Since then, the District has argued that it has made its payments in a timely fashion and moved to have the injunction dropped. U.S. District Court Judge Paul L. Friedman disagreed with the city, however, stating that the dropped injunction would disrupt settlement talks.

The D.C. Circuit begged to differ, finding that the District deserved a second chance given its "detailed, undisputed statistical evidence showing that it is timely paying private providers."

The ruling has been hailed as a victory for the District in its ongoing defense against the class action lawsuit and potentially, on a broader scale, for those subjected to injunctions.

"The district courts in this circuit will need to pay closer attention to the current circumstances to determine whether long-standing decrees such as this one should be modified or ended," said D.C. Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan.

The D.C. Circuit's ruling also finally awarded the District's legal strategy of using Horne v. Flores, a 2009 U.S. Supreme Court case that held Arizona did not have to increase funding for English Language Learner programs because the school district had made appropriate changes in policies and operations. The District had unsuccessfully argued Horne applied in two other class action lawsuits it was involved in.

It looks like the third time really is the charm, however; the D.C. Circuit noted the lower court "would benefit from its assessment of the likely risk of imminent harm to plaintiffs."

Despite the victories, the war still continues. The Court of Appeals' recent ruling does not include the issue of bus service for the students, and the courts still maintain oversight of the transportation system until either October 2012 or the city proves it can transport 2,500 students.

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