Florence County School District Four v. Carter

Florence County School District Four v. Carter (1993) addressed the issue of the reimbursement of private tuition costs to parents who disagree with their child’s individualized education program (IEP) and unilaterally place the child in a private school. The Supreme Court found that parents can indeed be compensated for these costs.

Facts of the Case

In Carter, the parents of a ninth grade student in South Carolina were dissatisfied with the educational goals outlined by the Florence County School District in their child’s IEP, which called for the student to make four months’ progress in reading and math during the course of her tenth grade year. Instead of letting the child remain in the public school, the parents placed their daughter in a private school specializing in educating children with disabilities while they appealed the board’s proposed IEP. In their suit, the parents sought and were awarded reimbursement for the tuition they paid for their daughter to attend a private school under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Eight years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling in School Committee of the Town of Burlington v. Department of Education (1985), which also dealt with a parent-school dispute over an IEP and the placement of the child in a private rather than a public school setting without the consent of the school district. Burlington established a two-part legal test to evaluate whether parents are entitled to reimbursement from the public school for a private school placement. First, the Court maintained that it was necessary to consider whether a school board’s placement for a child is inappropriate pursuant to a proposed IEP. Second, the Court found that it is necessary to evaluate whether the private school placement desired by the parents is appropriate based on the student’s disabilities. The Court found that the child in Burlington belonged in a private rather than a public school setting. Thus, under IDEA, the Court ordered reimbursement to the child’s parents for the costs of her private school tuition.

The Court’s Ruling

In Carter, the Court applied and interpreted the rule from Burlington. First, Carter established that the board’s IEP goals for a child, calling for only four months’ progress in reading and mathematics during an academic year, were inadequate to satisfy the requirement that the child be provided a free appropriate public education. Second, Carter clarified that the standards for evaluating the appropriateness of parentally selected unilateral placements in private school are not as difficult to meet as those that apply to boards when they craft IEPs. According to the Court, reimbursement for private school tuition is available to parents so long as the private schools provide an appropriate education, even when they do not meet all of the IDEA’s free appropriate education requirements. In Burlington, the Court pointed out that the private school placement was acceptable even though the school did not satisfy all of the state’s education standards and even though it was not included on the state’s approved list of private schools for special education students.

Both Carter and Burlington illustrate judicial ability to fashion discretionary equitable relief under IDEA in situations where school boards fail to provide students with disabilities with a free appropriate public education. The Burlington Court approved reimbursement of private tuition costs even though the remedy was not specifically mentioned in the IDEA under its power to “grant such relief as [it] determines is appropriate.” This belated payment of private school tuition expenses is consistent with the purpose of IDEA to provide children with disability an education that is both free and appropriate to their unique needs in public schools if possible, but otherwise in private schools at public expense.

Additional guidance on the topic of the circumstances under which parents may be reimbursed under IDEA for placing their children in private schools without the consent of their public school boards is now included in the subsequent amendments to the IDEA and in various lower court judgments.

Regina R. Umpstead

See also Compensatory Services; Free Appropriate Public Education; Individualized Education Program (IEP); Least Restrictive Environment; Tuition Reimbursement

Legal Citations

  • Burlington School Committee v. Department of Education, 471 U.S. 359 (1985). 
  • Florence County School District Four v. Carter, 510 U.S. 7 (1993). 
  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq.