WASHINGTON -- Federal courts may order public school systems to reimburse parents who unilaterally place their learning-disabled children in private schools after finding local public schools are inadequate for their children's educational needs, the Supreme Court ruled yesterday.

But Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, writing for a unanimous court, softened the potential fiscal blow to public school districts.

O'Connor said that courts granting reimbursement to parents "must consider all relevant factors, including the appropriate and reasonable level of reimbursement that should be required.

"Total reimbursement will not be appropriate if the court determines that the cost of the private education was unreasonable," O'Connor said.

At issue in the case was interpretation of the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, known more commonly by its acronym IDEA. The law was enacted to guarantee that children with learning disabilities receive a "free appropriate public education."

Shannon Carter was classified as learning disabled in 1985, when she was a ninth grade student in the Florence County, S.C., school district. School officials thereafter met with Carter's parents to formulate an individualized education program, as required under the federal law.

The parents were dissatisfied with the school district's plan, and successfully requested a hearing to challenge the program. But state and local educational officers concluded the plan was adequate.

During the appeals process, Cartees parents placed her in Trident Academy, a private school that specializes in educating children with disabilities. She began at the school in 1985 and graduated in 1988.

The parents filed suit in July 1986, asserting that the school district had failed to meet its duty to provide a free public education and requesting reimbursement for tuition and other expenses incurred at Trident.

A federal district court sided with the parents, holding that the school district's proposed plan was "wholly inadequate" and failed to satisfy the requirements of the federal education law.

The court also concluded that, although Trident's program did not comply with all the procedures set forth in the federal law, it did provide Carter with "an excellent education in substantial compliance with all the substantive requirements" of IDEA. Consequently, the court said, Carter's parents were entitled to reimbursement for their Trident expenses.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit agreed, rejecting an argument by the school district that reimbursement is not in order when the parents choose a private school that is not approved by the state or that does not comply with all the terms of IDEA.

The Supreme Court yesterday also rejected the district's argument. "Indeed, the school district's emphasis on state standards is somewhat ironic," O'Connor said. "As the court of appeals noted, ~it hardly seems consistent with the act's goals to forbid parents from educating their child at a school that provides an appropriate education simply because that school lacks the stamp of approval of the same public school system that failed to meet the child's needs in the first place.'"

O'Connor likewise gave short shrift to the district's complaint that allowing reimbursement for parents such as Carter's may put a drain on cash-strapped educational authorities.

"There is no doubt that Congress has imposed a significant financial burden on states and school district's," O'Connor said. "Yet public educational authorities who want to avoid reimbursing parents for the private education of a disabled child can do one of two things: give the chiild a free appropriate public education in a public setting, or place the child in an appropriate private setting of the state's choice."

O'Connor said that parents who unilaterally place their children in private schools without the consent of state or local school officials "do so at their own financial risk."

She said parents are entitled to reimbursement only if a federal court decides both that the public school plan for a disabled child violated the federal education law and that a private school placement was proper under the law.

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