Important Decision for Disabled Students’ Rights

Ninth Circuit Strikes Down Hawaii State Law That Prevents Students From Attending School After Age 20 Under The IDEA

 by Hans Gillinger   

The IDEA prevents states from establishing age limits on special education unless the limitation is equally applicable to non-disabled students.  The Ninth Circuit ruled that Hawaii Act 163 violated the IDEA in recent class action lawsuit.

The state of Hawaii passed “Act 163,” which barred both non-disabled students and students with individualized education programs (IEPs) from attending public schools in Hawaii past the school year in which the pupil turned 20.  In a class-action lawsuit entitled E.R.K., et al. v. State of Hawaii Department of Education the plaintiffs contended that Act 163 violated the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Rehabilitation Act.  All plaintiffs in that case belonged to a class of students aged 20 to 21.  The class argued that the state of Hawaii’s practice of providing free education to students without special needs in “Community Schools for Adults” that were exempt from Act 163 violated these laws that are designed to protect people with disabilities.

A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit ruled that Act 163 violated the IDEA, which disallows prevents states from establishing age limits that were applicable only to non-disabled public school students.  Generally, 20 U.S.C. section 1412(a)(1)(B)(I) generously allows states to pass laws limiting the right to a public education for students aged 18 through 21 “to the extent that [the state law’s] application to those children would be inconsistent with State law or practice… respecting the provision of public education to children in those age ranges.” 

In an important decision for disabled students’ rights, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the requirements of the IDEA meant that the state of Hawaii could not deny special education to disabled students aged 18 through 21 while also providing a free public education to same-age non-disabled students.  The Ninth Circuit ruled that the diploma programs offered to non-disabled students through the Community Schools for Adults amounted to a free public education because the programs were provided without charge under state supervision and direction, and involved secondary education.  The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court’s grant of judgment for the state of Hawaii on the plaintiffs’ IDEA claim.  However, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court’s findings in favor of the state of Hawaii on the plaintiffs’ discrimination claims under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. 

This decision has no direct impact on parents or students in the state of California that sets the same age range as the IDEA regarding the entitlement to public education.  This decision of the Ninth Circuit does confirm that limits exists on the power of states that attempt to cut short the time IEP students are eligible to receive a FAPE under the IDEA. 

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