School Committee of the Town of Burlington v. Department of Education of Massachusetts

PETITIONER: School Committee of Burlington, Massachusetts, et al.
RESPONDENT: Department of Education of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, et al.
LOCATION: Massachusetts Department of Education Bureau of Special Education Appeals

DOCKET NO.: 84-433
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1981-1986)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit

CITATION: 471 US 359 (1985)
ARGUED: Mar 26, 1985
DECIDED: Apr 29, 1985
GRANTED: Dec 03, 1984

David Berman - on behalf of the petitioners
David W. Rosenberg - on behalf of respondent Panico
Ellen L. Janos - on behalf of the state respondent

Facts of the case

Under the provisions of the Education of the Handicapped Act, state and local education agencies must provide handicapped children and their parents or guardians with access to the appropriate safeguards to ensure free and appropriate public education. Such safeguards include the right of the parents and guardians to participate in the development of an individual education program (IEP) and a procedure for the review of a proposed IEP if there is disagreement.

In the spring of 1979, Michael Panico, who was considered to be “handicapped” under the meaning of the Act, was attending Memorial School, a public school in Burlington. His continued poor performance and the school’s inability to handle his needs led to a discussion between the school district and Michael’s parents about what changes needed to be made to his IEP. In June of 1979, the town presented the Panicos with an IEP that called for Michael to be placed at Pine Glen School. In the meantime, the Panicos had met with specialists at the Massachusetts General Hospital who recommended that Michael’s needs could best be served at the Carroll School in Lincoln, Massachusetts. The Panicos enrolled Michael at the Carroll School at their own expense.

The Massachusetts Department of Education’s Bureau of Special Education Appeals (BSEA) held several hearings on the issue and determined that the town’s proposed placement was inappropriate and that the Carroll School was most adequately equipped to meet Michael’s needs. The BSEA ordered the town to pay for Michael’s tuition and transportation, as well as reimburse the Panicos for money already spent. The town sought judicial review in district court under federal and state statutes. The district court granted summary judgment against the town on the state law claim and set a date for trial on the federal claim. Because the town had refused to comply with the BSEA order, the Panicos and the state moved for preliminary injunctive relief. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reversed the judgment in regards to the state law claim and held that none of the parties were entitled to preliminary injunctive relief because none could show irreparable injury. On remand, the district court found in favor of the town that the proposed IEP was appropriate and that the town should not be required to compensate the Panicos. The case was transferred to a different district judge to rule on the issue of whether or not the town should be required to pay the Panicos for costs incurred while the case was pending. The district court held that the Panicos’ decision to place Michael in the Carroll School without the town’s consent absolved the town of financial responsibility while the case was pending and ordered the Panicos to reimburse the town. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the First Circuit reversed and held that the district court erred in conducting an entirely new trial, gave insufficient weight to the BSEA findings, and did not properly evaluate the IEP in question.


(1) Does the Education of the Handicapped Act allow for reimbursement for private school tuition and transportation?

(2) Does parental rejection of an IEP and the placement of the child in a private school without the agreement of local authorities bar such reimbursement?

Media for School Committee of the Town of Burlington v. Department of Education of Massachusetts

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 26, 1985 in School Committee of the Town of Burlington v. Department of Education of Massachusetts

Warren E. Burger:

We will hear arguments first this morning in School Committee of Burlington against the Department of Education of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Mr. Berman, you may proceed whenever you are ready.

David Berman:

Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court, on June 4th, 1979, the school officials of the town of Burlington conducted a core evaluation to determine the appropriate future placement for Michael Panico, a learning disabled child who is handicapped within the meaning of the Education of the Handicapped Act.

As a result of that evaluation, they determined that the appropriate placement for this child was a Classroom in the Pine Glen School, which is a public school of the town of Burlington.

This was a classroom for children with special needs, and it was taught by a teacher named John McAleer, who had had considerable success in dealing with children of special needs, especially children with learning disabilities and reading disabilities such as Michael then had.

The plan contemplated that Michael would take mathematics sooner or later, but hopefully sooner, with non-handicapped students, and that he would be immediately integrated with non-handicapped students in such non-academic subjects as athletics, music, and art.

Before the plan was even committed to paper, Michael's parents made up their mind to reject it, and they did reject it as soon as they got it, on July 3rd; 1979.

On July 17th, 1979, his parents appeal to the Bureau of Special Education Appeals of the Department of Education of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and sough a hearing on their complaint that the IEP was inadequate.

That date is a very important date, because at least as of that date proceedings were pending pursuant to the statute.

In August of 1979, Michael was enrolled in a private school in Lincoln, Massachusetts, exclusively for children with learning disabilities, known as the Carroll School.

Warren E. Burger:

Did he consult with the school authorities before that transfer was made?

David Berman:

He informed the school authorities, Your Honor, that he was going to make a transfer.

He did not ask their permission to do so, and he did not receive permission to do so.

Harry A. Blackmun:

Counsel, all this is five or six years ago.

Where is the youngster now?

David Berman:

I am informed now, Your Honor, that the youngster is in a private school in Beverly, Massachusetts, called the Landmark School.

At least that is where he was When I was last informed of his whereabouts.

Now, the hearing officer conducting proceedings in the months of September, October, and November of 1979, and on January 31st, 1980, she rendered a decision, and in her decision, she made certain findings and rulings which are not necessarily consistent with each other.

But first of all, she said, yes, this IEP, this individual educational plan... I will call it an IEP henceforth... was appropriate.

She said that Mr. McAleer was indeed an excellent teacher.

She noted the Carroll School was a private school exclusively for children with learning disabilities, and she noted that the Pine Glen School was a public school with opportunities for main streaming a child, which is the word that is used to describe taking a handicapped child, as federal law requires, and putting him into the mainstream of activity with non handicapped children.

Nevertheless, she did not uphold the IEP that was written earlier.

She said, first of all, that Michael needed a form of teaching reading known as Orton-Gillingham, that he needed small classes, that he needed a supporting peer group, meaning other children who have learning disabilities, and he needed freedom from distraction.

Now, except with respect to the supporting peer group, petitioners have never doubted that Michael needed all these things, but they never could understand why that would be a basis for rejecting their plan, since he would have received all of them at the Pine Glen School from Mr. McAleer.

Finally, she said over a long period of time these school authorities have violated any number of procedural rights that belong to this child, and therefore I doubt whether they have the capacity to implement this plan in the future.

Now, again, it is very unclear just what she meant by that.

Did she mean that the school authorities were going to yank this child out of the class in the middle of the year or do something like that?

No one can really answer that question, I think, very well.

If that is what she meant, she certainly had no basis whatsoever for making that kind of judgment.

On February 26, 1980, less than a month after that opinion was rendered, the petitioners, who are the School Committee of the Town of Burlington and the town itself, brought an action in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts under Title 20 of the United States Code, Section 1415(e)(2).