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Asked and Answered: Cal. Court's Answer Ends Jail Special Ed Case

By William Peacock, Esq. on January 29, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

That was easy.

A years-long dispute over which agency was responsible for picking up the tab for the federally-mandated special education that must be provided to students, even those in jail, ended yesterday with a per curiam whimper and a citation to a lengthy California Supreme Court opinion.

The short answer? The offender's parents' local district.

Michael Garcia

He was a special education student, beginning in second grade. By age fifteen, he was a juvenile delinquent, in the hands of the Los Angeles County Office of Education (LACOE), a school district that provides education to juvenile hall inmates, as well as troubled students in community day schools.

But at age 18, he was transferred to the big-boy jail. Federal law, however, guarantees a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) until the age of 22.

Who pays for that in-jail education?

The Office of Administrative Hearings ruled that, in the absence of a statutory exemption, the default rule from Education Code Section 56040, assigning the cost to the parents' district applied. For Garcia, that meant the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). LAUSD petitioned the federal court for relief, but the district court agreed with the OAH, leading to the present Ninth Circuit appeal.

Certified Question Answered

As we reported in December on our California Case Law Blog, the California Supreme Court agreed with the OAH's interpretation:

"Absent any indications of a contrary legislative intent in the language and structure of the special education statutory scheme as a whole, we conclude that when none of the statutory exceptions to section 56041 applies, the entity responsible for providing special education to an eligible young adult pupil while he or she is incarcerated in county jail is properly determined by the terms of section 56041."

As for LAUSD's arguments regarding the practical impact of such a rule, the court was sympathetic, yet unrelenting. While the rule could conceivably require the parents' district (in, for example, San Diego) to provide services to a far-away defendant (in say, Crescent City), the court noted that the district could always contract with other agencies to provide the services. (They just get stuck with the bill.)

Is it fair? Having a district pay the tab for an adult, incarcerated student hundreds of miles away doesn't seem particularly fair, but what's the alternative -- saddling the districts nearest the jails with the tab? (For LAUSD, that wouldn't provide much relief, considering their massive downtown city jail.)

Per Curiam

Somewhat hilariously, two years after they certified the question to the California Supreme Court, the court finally dismissed the case. In the interim, Chief Judge Alex Kozinski unfortunately had to step in, as the late Judge Betty Fletcher was one of the original panelists that heard oral arguments in 2011.

In a one-page per curiam opinion, the court stated:

The district court had affirmed a 2009 decision of the California Office of Administrative Hearings that the Los Angeles Unified School District was responsible for providing special education services to Michael Garcia. Because the district court's ruling is consistent with California Supreme Court's answer to the certified question, its judgment is AFFIRMED."

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