Minnesota students with disabilities receiving special education services through public schools are entitled to school instruction on all days in an academic year leading up to their 22nd birthdays. In a ruling on Aug. 25, U.S. District Court Judge Patrick Schiltz agreed with Mid-Minnesota Legal Aid’s Disability Law Center that those students’ education was cut short in violation of federal law.
Minnesotans are eligible to receive traditional public school education until age 21. The Minnesota Department of Education also offers adult basic-education programs for adults of any age. Although states are permitted to limit age eligibility for special education students, they can only do so to the extent that doing otherwise would be inconsistent with state law respecting the provision of public education for children in those age ranges. In other words, special education students must be treated the same as general education students in terms of age eligibility.
Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), states must provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to disabled students until age 22 unless states do not provide public education to students without disabilities until they reach age 22. Since Minnesota offers adult basic education programs for adults of all ages, the plaintiffs maintained that Minnesota law and practice were not inconsistent with providing FAPE until a disabled student’s 22nd birthday.
One of the plaintiffs, identified as K.O., is a 23-year-old male who has Autism Spectrum Disorder as well as Prader-Willi Syndrome. He was enrolled in Osseo Public School District and received a free appropriate public education pursuant to the IDEA. Although his anticipated graduation date was 2021, the plaintiff was told his graduation date was moved up to July 2020 pursuant to Minnesota statute. The plaintiff disagreed and attended a conciliation conference with the individualized education program team. However, the education center reiterated that it would terminate services.
A former version of Minnesota law stated that Minnesota residents were no longer entitled to FAPE under IDEA on July 1 after turning 21. The plaintiffs argued that this was unlawful because the statute applied only to special education students and not to general education students. They argued that eligibility under IDEA for special education ends when a student turns 22.
In a statement Tuesday, Department of Education spokesperson Kevin Burns wrote, “MDE takes seriously our charge of overseeing the provision of special education services in Minnesota and has always done so in fidelity with state and federal law. In 2023, the Minnesota Legislature amended the portion of state law that was at issue in the K.O. case, providing that students in Minnesota are eligible for services until they turn 22. MDE is working with the Attorney General’s Office on next steps related to the decision rendered in this case.”
In the litigation, the state argued that the court should construe “public education” narrowly to apply to “full-time, comprehensive, free schools”—that is, education provided on school premises. Adult basic education programs were not offered on school premises, but FAPE programs were often offered on school premises, and so ABE programs would not be considered “public education.”
The court was not persuaded by the argument. “The education offered to, say, a tenth-grade student who does not have a disability and who is attending a traditional public high school will often differ dramatically from the FAPE that is offered to a tenth-grade student who has a disability and who is attending the same high school,” the court reasoned. “Yet the State would never argue that, because the education offered to a typical student with disabilities differs from the education offered to a typical student without disabilities, the student without disabilities is not received a ‘public education’ for the purposes of the IDEA.”
“[P]roviding FAPE to students with disabilities until their twenty-second birthdays is not ‘inconsistent with State law or practice,’” the court wrote. “[T]he State is required to offer FAPE to students with disabilities until they reach age 22.” The court ordered the Minnesota Department of Education to provide compensatory education to class members who turned twenty-one years old prior to July 1, 2022.
“As a result of the judge’s decision, all students represented in this class action suit should be getting compensatory education services,” said Jenn Purrington, deputy directory of Legal Aid’s Disability Law Center. “So, this is very good news.”
“Federal law is clear, these students are entitled to services through their 22nd birthday,” stated Maren Hulden, supervising Disability Law Center attorney. “Our charge now is finding those students wherever they are in life, today, so they can reclaim the education they were denied.”
Both Hulden and Purrington emphasized that the students represented in the class action suit were doubly harmed by both not having the requisite educational instruction and experiencing it during the pandemic.
“[K]eep in mind, this happened in 2020 during the COVID-19 remote-learning lockdown,” said Hulden. “Negative impacts for special education students meant their learning was cut in two ways—one, they were denied the experiential settings inherent to transition-learning and two, their eligibility timeframe was less than what federal law requires.”
“They’re approaching their mid-20s now, so it’s exceedingly important because of the impact of COVID-19 learning loss, that they get to recover and catch up with the support of the state,” Purrington added.