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November 7, 2013
  CG v. Comm. of Pa. Dept. of Ed. - Third Circuit
Headline: Pennsylvania's special education funding formula does not violate the ADA or the Rehabilitation Act

Area of Law: Education law- special education funding

Issues Presented: Whether the defendants violated the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act by distributing funding to school districts based on the assumption that 16% of the students had disabilities.

Brief Summary: Plaintiffs are members of a class of disabled students who claim that Pennsylvania's method for distributing special education funds violates the Individual with Disabilities Act ("IDEA"), the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA") and the Rehabilitation Act ("RA"). One source of funding for students with disabilities is through federal funds if the state implements state-wide education programs that guarantee a free appropriate public education ("FAPE"). The funds are distributed among all districts based on the average daily membership of the district from the prior year under the assumption that 16% of students in each district are disabled. Thus, the class of students relevant to this appeal are special-needs students attending schools with a 17% or greater enrollment of special needs students. Plaintiffs challenged the District Court's finding that the Plaintiffs failed to establish a violation of the ADA or RA. To demonstrate a violation of the ADA or RA, the Plaintiffs must prove some kind of discrimination based on the Plaintiffs' disabilities. The Third Circuit held the Plaintiffs did not prove they were treated differently based on the existence of their disabilities or were deprived of a benefit or opportunity provided to non-disabled students or a group of students with some other category, because of their disabilities. Thus, the District Court's holding for the Defendant was upheld.

Significance (if any):

Extended Summary: This case addresses the legality of the disbursement of federal funding for special needs students in certain school districts in Pennsylvania.
Plaintiffs, a class of students in school districts where greater than 16% of the students enrolled have disabilities, challenged 24 P.S.ยง 25-2509.5, which sets forth a special education funding formula. The funding formula disperses a base supplement of federal funds to districts based on the assumption that 16% of the students enrolled in each district are disabled. The funding formula was created in response to the IDEA. The IDEA grants federal funds to states that also provide special education funds in order to implement state-wide special education programs that guarantee a FAPE to eligible disabled children. The class of children bringing the claim was composed of children who were enrolled in school districts where the percentage of disabled students was 17% or higher because they received disproportionately less funding than non-class districts where the percentage of students with disabilities enrolled is 16% or less.
A primary mechanism for implementing a FAPE is through an individualized education plan ("IEP"). An IEP is developed to ensure a student will receive meaningful educational benefits in light of the student's intellectual potential and unique needs. At trial, Plaintiffs' expert Dr. Bruce Baker testified that students who received an IEP in class districts scored lower on Pennsylvania's standardized reading and math tests than IEP students in non-class districts. Additionally Dr. Baker stated that the graduation rates were lower for IEP students in class districts than the graduate rates for IEP students in non-class districts. However, the District Court held Dr. Baker did not provide evidence about the relationship between the receipt of FAPE and funding levels or produce any evidence that any student was deprived of a service because of Pennsylvania's funding formula.
Additionally, despite hearing testimony from six parents, the District Court found the Plaintiffs failed to produce any witness that testified that an IEP for any student was affected by a lack of funding or that any child had been denied a FAPE as a result of the funding formula.
The Plaintiffs challenged the District Court's ruling that they failed to establish a violation of the ADA or RA. The Plaintiffs did not challenge the District Court's findings of fact or the District Court's conclusion that there was no violation of the IDEA. However, an assessment of whether there was a violation of the IDEA is linked to whether there was a violation of the ADA or RA. The IDEA governs the affirmative duty to provide public education to disabled students while the ADA and RA embody the negative prohibition against depriving students of public education. Failure to provide a FAPE violates Part B of the IDEA and generally violates the ADA and RA because it deprives students of a benefit that non-disabled students receive by attending school- a FAPE. However, failure to prove a claim under the IDEA does not mean a claim of violating the ADA or RA will fail.
To prove a claim under the ADA or RA, plaintiffs must show: 1) they are handicapped or disabled as defined under the statutes; (2) they are otherwise qualified to participate in the program at issue; and (3) they were precluded from participating in a program or receiving a service or benefits because of their disability. The RA allows a plaintiff to recover if he or she was deprived of an opportunity to participate in a program solely on the basis of disability, while the ADA is more inclusive and covers discrimination on the basis of disability even if there is another cause as well. The main purpose of the ADA and RA is to assure handicapped individuals receive the same benefits as non-handicapped individuals. Plaintiffs must prove they were treated differently based on their disability for a successful claim of a violation of the ADA or RA.
The Third Circuit found that the Plaintiffs failed to prove they were deprived of a benefit or opportunity provided to non-disabled students or students with some other category of disability, because of their disability, therefore the District Court's decision should be upheld. Specifically, the Third Circuit stated that the Plaintiff's' claim that the funding formula disparately impacts disabled students in districts which had greater than 16% of students enrolled with disabilities was insufficient for a successful claim. Importantly, Plaintiffs failed to provide evidence that the funding formula deprived the class members of a program, benefit, or service that was provided to disabled students in non-class school districts. The Third Circuit ultimately rejected the Plaintiffs' claim that the use of the 16% figure and the resulting disparity in per student funding for students in class districts as compared to nonclass districts violated the ADA or RA. As a result, the Court affirmed the District Court's decision.

To read the full opinion, please visit http://www2.ca3.uscourts.gov/opinarch/123747p.pdf

Panel (if known): Shwartz, Smith, and Roth, Circuit Judges

Argument Date: September 10, 2013

Argument Location: Philadelphia, PA

Date of Issued Opinion: November 5, 2013

Docket Number: No. 12-3747

Decided: Affirmed

Case Alert Author: Peter Moomjian

Counsel: Kevin L. Quisenberry Esq., Evalyn Welling, Esq. for the Appellants; Sean A. Kirkpatrick, Esq., for the Appellees; Sonja D. Kerr, Esq. for Amici.

Author of Opinion: Judge Shwartz

Circuit: 3rd Circuit

Case Alert Circuit Supervisor: Prof. Susan L. DeJarnatt

    Posted By: Susan DeJarnatt @ 11/07/2013 10:21 AM     3rd Circuit  

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