U.S. District Chief Judge Lawrence Stengel of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania. courtesy photo

A federal judge has ruled that Downingtown Area School District does not have to pay for the private-school tuition of a former student who left the district over dissatisfaction with her individualized education plan.

U.S. District Chief Judge Lawrence F. Stengel of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania upheld a hearing officer’s decision denying the minor K.D.’s parents tuition reimbursement for her private schooling.

K.D. was diagnosed with dyslexia, mathematics disorder, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Her parents, Theresa and Jonathan Dunn, claimed that a series of IEPs offered to her by Pickering Valley Elementary School from kindergarten to third grade failed to help her improve in her schoolwork, necessitating her transfer to private school.

The reimbursement dispute was handled by a hearing officer and centered on K.D.’s parents’ claim that their daughter was not afforded a free and appropriate public education. The hearing officer sided with the district, denying the Dunns’ argument that the IEPs repeated the same goals year-to-year without change in instruction.

“K.D.’s IEPs were reasonably calculated to enable her to make meaningful progress appropriate in light of her circumstances. Contrary to the plaintiffs’ assertions, the IEPs were not the same year-to-year,” Stengel wrote in his opinion.

He added that given her circumstances, K.D. did make meaningful progress.

“Ms. Smith, K.D.’s regular classroom teacher, testified to the hearing officer that by the end of her second-grade year, K.D. had made ‘amazing’ progress in using decoding and blending skills for reading, spelling, writing, constructing responses, and using phonics,” Stengel said. “During her third-grade year, K.D.’s special education teacher worked one-on-one with K.D. K.D.’s reading level increased a full grade level, her IEP goals increased, and she met previous goals set by her IEP.”

He concluded, “In sum, I find that the hearing officer thoroughly considered the evidence in determining that K.D. was not denied a FAPE. I also find that, although her progress was not that of a student without a learning disability, in light of her circumstances, K.D.’s IEPs were reasonably calculated to provide her a meaningful educational benefit. Accordingly, the hearing officer did not err in finding that K.D.’s parents were not entitled to tuition reimbursement for K.D.’s subsequent private school placement.”

The Dunns are represented by Catherine Merino Reisman of Reisman Carolla Gran in Haddonfield, New Jersey. Reisman did not respond to a request for comment.

“Everybody, certainly parents, but also teachers and professional staff, even lawyers, want to see every child overcome any obstacles to learning,” Downingtown’s attorney, Karl A. Romberger Jr. of Sweet, Stevens, Katz & Williams in New Britain, said in an email. “It’s not a ‘win’ in the sense that parents were unhappy with the school’s program; but it is both vindication for hard working and caring professional staff and it is a lesson to other educators that the key to avoiding liability is obtaining child-based data, analyzing and reacting to the data in positive ways, and being able to explain resulting decisions–offering a ‘cogent explanation.’”