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Federal Court Requires Significant Changes In Early Childhood Programs

School Law Update

Wisconsin School Districts should carefully review early childhood special education service delivery, following a recent decision from the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. In Madison School District v. Patrick R., a federal judge confirmed the following: 

  1. IEP teams - not just parents - must determine the appropriate placement in the least restrictive environment for all preschool children with disabilities. In other words, the IEP team must ensure that preschool children with disabilities receive services in natural settings with non-disabled peers to the extent appropriate for each individual child. Although parents are IEP team members and must fully participate in the placement decision, parents do not unilaterally decide preschool placements.

  2. IEP teams must specifically identify the preschool child's placement on the placement page of the IEP. Teams may not use vague terms such as "community settings" in a child's IEP, nor may they state that a placement is based on "parent preference" or that the "parents have placed the child at X daycare, and therefore the district will provide services in that setting." Again, the IEP team is responsible for determining and documenting a specific placement.
  3. School districts must pay for preschool tuition owed during the time the child is receiving services identified in the child's IEP. School districts are not, however, responsible for the remainder of the time the child spends in the placement for daycare or other purposes.

Many school districts are already reviewing early childhood programs in response to the due process hearing decision in this case. If your school district has not already done so, it should:

  1. Revise early childhood policies and practices to reflect the new requirements, and train staff to implement these changes properly.

  2. Continue efforts to increase preschool options. School districts don't necessarily have to pay for private preschools for all preschool children with disabilities. If a school district creates preschool options that are available to all children in the district, its responsibility for private preschool tuition will decrease significantly.
  3. Increase child find efforts and work with Birth to Three programs to identify preschool children with disabilities early. Because preschool placement is no longer a unilateral parent decision, the IEP team will need to plan in advance to ensure that a full range of placement options are available.

If you have questions involving your district's early childhood policies and practices or other issues, please contact your Quarles & Brady LLP attorney.