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Commonwealth Court ruling strikes down adjusted ‘age-out’ rule for Pa. special education students

The entrance to the Pennsylvania Judicial Center in Harrisburg.
Kent M. Wilhelm
Spotlight PA
The entrance to the Pennsylvania Judicial Center in Harrisburg.

A rule change lengthening the time students with disabilities can stay in Pennsylvania public schools has been deemed void and “unenforceable” in a new Commonwealth Court ruling.

The decision marks a win for Pittsburgh Public Schools, which sued the state over the measure last year alongside the Pennsylvania School Boards Association (PSBA) and two Philadelphia-area school districts.

Their lawsuit came just days after the state’s Department of Education told schools they must serve special education students until their 22nd birthday. Under previous state guidelines, students with disabilities were only entitled to educational services until the end of the school year in which they turned 21.

The 43-page ruling handed down Thursday sided with the districts, who argued that state officials did not follow the “rulemaking procedures” required to implement the age change. As of Monday, officials with the Pennsylvania Department of Education (PDE) have appealed the decision to the state’s Supreme Court.

"The Department is committed to ensuring that every Pennsylvania student receives a high-quality education — and the Department’s position as it relates to the [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)], and guidance has not changed,” PDE wrote in a message to schools Monday. “Specifically, the Department believes that the guidance, which helps to ensure students with disabilities receive services to which they are entitled, is consistent with IDEA.”

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PDE also said that its appeal had stayed the Commonwealth Court’s decision while further court action remains pending.

Pittsburgh Public Schools solicitor Ira Weiss said the district is now reviewing the effect of the PDE’s appeal. He added that, for the remainder of the 2023-2024 school year, no student who is 21 years old and enrolled in the district’s special education services will be turned away.

“We're not making any change till the end of the year, if then,” Weiss said. “So anybody that's there now will continue there till the end of the school year.”

But many families have been left in limbo while they await further guidance from school leaders for the 2024-2025 school year, or sooner. Claudia De Palma, a senior attorney at the Public Interest Law Center, said that her organization has been approached by families who were told their students must transition out of their school district in two weeks.

“Even though they'd previously been told that they could stay in school until they were 22, as federal law required,” De Palma said.

According to a PDE memo last year, the rule change was meant to align the state with age requirements outlined in the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a law that ensures children with disabilities have access to a free appropriate public education.

States are mandated to provide that level of education to all children with disabilities “between the ages of 3 and 21, inclusive” under IDEA, meaning students are entitled to those education services through the end of their 21st year.

Federal court rulings in Connecticut and Minnesota have also upheld that right for students in those states. Pennsylvania’s rule change was also taken to federal court when a family in the Lower Merion School District alleged that the state’s age-out policy had violated the IDEA.

The state’s extended age-out policy was adopted as part of the resulting settlement last August.

“As federal appellate courts have unanimously concluded, the statute states that students with disabilities are eligible to receive special education services until the date they turn twenty-two years old,” Education Law Center senior attorney Hetal Dhagat wrote in a statement.

“As a recipient of federal funds under the IDEA, Pennsylvania must follow this requirement.”

School services are critical as students age out of system

In their complaint last September, the suing districts said they had not received sufficient warning of the age-out change and therefore did not budget for services they are now obligated to provide. At the time, PPS solicitor Weiss said extending the duration of services could require the district to spend an additional $1 million or more.

De Palma with the Public Interest Law Center said that families with students at the cusp of aging out are now facing a similar scramble.

“The parents we're talking to are the parents whose additional year was going to be this coming school year, who are now being told, ‘Actually, you're done now. You're done in June,’” she said.

De Palma added that many of these students are receiving carefully designed services to help them transition out of school and into adult education classes, independent living programs and entry-level jobs.

“They're receiving a lot of skills to help them bridge that change from being a student to being a young adult, and these services are really critical for navigating that transition,” De Palma said.

She said families have been relying on the additional time allotted to their students when making transition plans.

“There are any number of really complicated transitions that families are navigating at this point, and they take time and they take care of coordination and planning.”

Updated: May 21, 2024 at 3:42 PM EDT
This story has been updated to clarify that the lower court's ruling has been stayed due to the Department of Education's appeal.
Jillian Forstadt is an education reporter at 90.5 WESA. Before moving to Pittsburgh, she covered affordable housing, homelessness and rural health care at WSKG Public Radio in Binghamton, New York. Her reporting has appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition.