In late July 2020, the Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit reversed the Minnesota U.S. District Court, and held that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) did not require a public school district to reimburse the parent of an open-enrolled special education student for the cost of transportation between the student’s home and the school of her parent’s choice. For months, many anxiously anticipated the Eighth Circuit’s decision, because the legal issue raised carried significant financial and practical ramifications for school districts across Minnesota. Somewhat ironically, the decision arrived at a time when most schools were not transporting any students due to COVID-19.
The case – Osseo Area Schools v. M.N.B. – arose when M.N.B., a resident of Big Lake Schools (“Big Lake”) in need of special education services, open-enrolled in Osseo Area Schools (“Osseo”). In the years preceding her open enrollment, M.N.B. received special education services through Big Lake Schools as outlined in an Individualized Education Plan (“IEP”), which included specialized transportation “to and from school.” In September 2016, M.N.B. applied to Osseo under Minnesota’s open enrollment program, and Osseo approved her application.
Osseo and M.N.B.’s parent, J.B., disputed the extent to which Osseo was required to reimburse J.B. for transportation expenses. As a result, the two could not agree on a new IEP for M.N.B., and J.B. continued to drive M.N.B. to and from school. J.B. claimed that because the IEP provided for specialized transportation “to and from school,” Osseo was responsible for reimbursing transportation costs between M.N.B.’s residence and her new school. Osseo maintained that because M.N.B. resided in Big Lake, Osseo was required to reimburse J.B. only for mileage costs from Osseo’s border to the school. Osseo declined to reimburse J.B. for transportation costs between M.N.B.’s home in Big Lake and the Osseo boundary.
As a result, J.B. filed a state administrative complaint with the Minnesota Department of Education alleging that Osseo violated the IDEA by declining to reimburse the full amount of transportation expenses. Osseo requested a due process hearing on the same issue, and an administrative law judge (“ALJ”) ruled in favor of J.B. Osseo then appealed the administrative law judge’s decision to the U.S. District Court, which affirmed the ALJ’s decision. The district court reasoned that Osseo, by virtue of its accepting M.N.B. for open enrollment, was responsible for providing her with a free appropriate public education as set forth in her IEP. The district court concluded that M.N.B.’s choice to open enroll had no relevant bearing on its legal conclusion.
Osseo appealed, and a unanimous Eighth Circuit three-judge panel ruled in Osseo’s favor. The Court began its analysis with the premise that Big Lake, M.N.B.’s district of residence, had fulfilled its obligation under the IDEA when it reimbursed J.B. for the cost of transportation to and from M.N.B.’s former school. Acknowledging that the IDEA does not speak directly to whether a public school district is required to assume the cost of transportation to and from a school of a parent’s choice, the Court analyzed whether Congress unambiguously put school districts on notice that they must cover transportation expenses when a student’s travel is the result of a parent’s choice under an open enrollment program.
The Court concluded that Congress did not, because nothing in the IDEA provides clear notice that a school district is required to assume the programmatic obligation of reimbursement for transportation costs beyond a district’s own boundaries. While a State may choose to provide educational benefits that exceed those required under the IDEA, notably, Minnesota had not chosen to do so with respect to transportation of open-enrolled students.
While the Court seemed to limit its holding to the circumstances presented in this particular case, the Court also unequivocally confirmed that absent State law to the contrary, the IDEA’s mandates apply within a public school district’s jurisdictional boundaries, meaning that a district is responsible for fulfilling the IDEA’s obligations only within the district’s locus of legal control. J.B.’s request for a rehearing en banc (i.e., one before all judges sitting in the Eighth Circuit) was denied, and the issue is now settled law in Minnesota.
This article is intended to provide general information with commentary. It should not be relied on as legal advice. If required, legal advice regarding this topic should be obtained from district legal counsel.
Alex D. Ivan is an education law attorney with the law firm of Kennedy & Graven, Chartered. For more information, please contact him at (612) 337-9304 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
© Alex D. Ivan (2020). Used by permission.