WASHINGTON -- Federal law requires public school districts to pay for one-on-one nursing services for some disabled students throughout the school day, the Supreme Court said Wednesday in a ruling that may strain educational budgets across the nation.
The court, by a 7-2 vote in the case of an Iowa teenager, said such continuous care is not medical treatment and therefore must be publicly funded under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.The case, closely watched by school administrators and special-education advocates nationwide, means the Cedar Rapids Community School District must pay thousands of dollars a year to provide nursing care for Garret Frey, a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic who is now a high school sophomore.
The justices had been told by the National School Boards Association that "school district budgets cannot shoulder the additional financial strain."
"In light of congressional failure to provide the state and local education agencies with adequate financial assistance to pay for the costs of special education, any judicial interpretations of the IDEA which inflicts additional obligations . . . fall inordinately on already overburdened local public education budgets," the association had contended in a friend-of-the-court brief.
But Charlene Frey, Garret's mother, praised the ruling. "It's going to mean more for other kids than it means for Garret," she said when reached at her home. "I'm glad it will mean everything for other kids."
The federal law provides that all children with disabilities receive a "free appropriate public education." Under it, public schools are required to provide various "special education and related services," but an exception is made for medical treatment.
Garret, described by Justice John Paul Stevens today as a "friendly, creative and intelligent young man," was paralyzed from the neck down in a motorcycle accident when he was 4 years old.
His daily health care include urinary catheterization, suctioning of his tracheotomy, providing food and drink, repositioning in his wheelchair, monitoring his blood pressure and someone familiar with the various alarms on his ventilator.
School officials in Cedar Rapids said the special help Garret requires so he can attend his local high school is so involved and so expensive it should be considered medical treatment. A federal appeals court disagreed, and Wednesday the Supreme Court said the appeals court was right.
"This case is about whether meaningful access to the public schools will be assured, not the level of education that a school must finance once access is attained," Stevens wrote for the court.