Can you offer a “comparable” set of services?

When a student with an IEP moves into your district, you have a duty to provide services that are “comparable” to the services the student was receiving in the previous district. This makes sense. All IEP decisions are supposed to be based on evaluation data. When that new student shows up on your doorstep, you know nothing about the student. The evaluation data consists of the information the previous district and the parent provide. So the starting point is the existing IEP. Can we come close to replicating it?

A recent decision from a court in New Jersey shows us that sometimes the comparison should include not just the IEP services, but also, the specifics of the placement. The student lived in New York and was placed by the district in a private day school. Then the family moved to New Jersey. The Jersey school district developed a starter IEP and proposed placement for the student in a public school classroom. The parents challenged that and prevailed.

The administrative law judge (ALJ) determined that the New Jersey school did not offer an IEP that was comparable to the one the student had in New York. The district court affirmed that decision. The services in the IEPs were similar, but the main difference was in class size, school size, and student:teacher ratio. The New York placement had the student in a private school with just eight students in a self-contained classroom. New Jersey offered placement in a classroom with about 20 students, in a larger school with a higher ratio of students to teacher. Key Quote:

Therefore, this Court finds, on its own examination of the record and affording due weight to the ALJ’s findings, that the differences between the proposed and current programs in terms of class size, student-teacher ratio, the proportion of classified students per class, and school size indicate the plans were not equivalent.

As a result, the New Jersey school was ordered to continue the student’s placement in a private school that was another branch of the private school the student had attended in New York.

The case illustrates that “comparable” is a subjective term, one of many in our special education laws. Subjective terms (e.g., appropriate, need, comparable, meaningful) permit second guessing by ALJs as happened here.

It’s West Orange BOE v. B.R., decided by the federal court for New Jersey on July 22, 2022. It’s published by Special Educator at 81 IDELR 130.


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Tomorrow: Adventures of a teacher’s aide: Liberty Hill ISD