Smiling child

Ruling Might Spur 4-year-old Kindergarten

A Federal Judge Ordered The Madison School District To Pay For Private Education For A Disabled 4-year-old.

Wisconsin State Journal :: LOCAL :: D1
Sunday, March 8, 2009
By DOUG ERICKSON derickson@madison.com 608-252-6149

A family’s federal court victory over the Madison School District in a disability rights lawsuit could push forward efforts in the district to start a 4-year-old kindergarten program, the attorney representing the family predicts.

On Feb 25, U.S. District Judge Barbara Crabb ruled that the district violated the federal law governing children with disabilities when it refused to pay a portion of the private preschool tuition for a 4-year-old with a learning disability.

The child needed to participate in activities with non-disabled peers to improve his social behavior, according to the lawsuit filed by his parents. The preschool was an appropriate setting for this to happen, and the district did not offer any alternatives, Crabb ruled.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires districts to provide disabled 3- and 4-year-olds with an appropriate preschool education at no charge. The Madison School District currently has no inclusive education option for preschool students with disabilities within its schools.

“If 4-year-old kindergarten were available, (the boy) would have gone there and there would not have been a legal issue,” said the family’s attorney, Jeffrey Spitzer-Resnick of Disability Rights Wisconsin. He is a member of the district committee studying the feasibility of 4-year-old kindergarten.

District employees and the boy’s parents agreed the boy had significant developmental delays and needed help interacting with peers. His parents enrolled him in a private preschool, and the district began sending a special education teacher and an occupational therapist to the preschool to assist the boy about five hours per week.

The district argued that it was doing its share by paying for the district staff, their transportation to the preschool and equipment. It contended that it did not need to pay for any part of the preschool tuition because the tuition was part of the couple’s child-care costs.

But Crabb sided with an earlier ruling by an administrative law judge that the district was playing “a semantics game.” Although the district had agreed with the parents that the preschool was an appropriate location for the boy’s special education services, it treated his enrollment as a parental choice for purely child-care purposes.

“The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was not intended to reward such games,” Crabb wrote. She ordered the district to pay for five hours of tuition a week, or about $185.

The district has not decided whether it will appeal, said spokesman Ken Syke. He said planning for a possible 4-year-old kindergarten program is driven by a lot of factors but that such a program would meet some needs of preschool students with disabilities in similar situations.