K.L., THROUGH HER PARENT L.L. ON BEHALF OF A CLASS OF THOSE SIMILARLY SITUATED Plaintiff, Appellant,
RHODE ISLAND BOARD OF EDUCATION; BARBARA S. COTTAM, Defendants, Appellees.
FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF
RHODE ISLAND Hon. William E. Smith, Chief U.S. District Judge
H. Kim, with whom Sonja L. Deyoe and Paul Aston were on
brief, for appellant.
Sullivan for appellees.
Lynch and Lipez, Circuit Judges, Ponsor, District Judge.
case involves the alleged failure of Rhode Island to provide
a free appropriate public education ("FAPE") to
qualified students with disabilities, as required by the
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
("IDEA"). Specifically, K.L., through her parent
L.L., and on behalf of a certified class of those similarly
situated, asserts that Rhode Island violates the IDEA because
it provides "public education" to individuals
without disabilities between the ages of 21 and 22, but does
not provide special education services to qualifying
individuals with disabilities of the same age.
core of this dispute is the meaning of "public
education" in a section of the IDEA specifying that a
state need not provide FAPE to qualified students aged 18
through 21 if doing so "would be inconsistent with State
law or practice . . . respecting the provision of public
education." 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(B)(i). The IDEA
does not define "public education," and we have not
previously interpreted the phrase. The district court
concluded that the adult education programs Rhode Island
provides to non-disabled students beyond the age of 21 do not
constitute "public education" within the meaning of
the IDEA, and, therefore, Rhode Island does not discriminate
against students with disabilities by failing to provide FAPE
to qualifying students of the same age.
disagree with the district court's narrow interpretation
of the term "public education." Accordingly, we
vacate the decision of the district court and remand the case
for entry of judgment in favor of K.L. and for remedial
proceedings consistent with this opinion.
original complaint and amended complaint were filed on her
own behalf and on behalf of a class of those similarly
situated. The district court granted K.L.'s motion for
certification of a statewide class that includes
[a]ll individuals who were over 21 and under 22 within two
years before the filing of this action or will turn 21 during
the pendency of this action who are provided or were provided
a FAPE under the IDEA by any [Local Education Agency] in the
State of Rhode Island and who, but for turning 21, would
otherwise qualify or would have qualified for a FAPE until
age 22 because they have not or had not yet earned a regular
high school diploma ("the Class").
certification, the parties filed cross-motions for summary
judgment. The district court determined that the only
significant factual dispute concerned "the degree of
public supervision the Rhode Island Department of Education
("RIDE") exercises over the state's adult
education programs." Concluding that this dispute was
immaterial to the scope of the term "public
education," the court granted summary judgment for
appellees on the basis of its holding that Rhode Island's
"adult education" services do not qualify as
"public education" within the meaning of the IDEA.
appeal, K.L. argues that, for purposes of the IDEA,
"public education" includes the adult education
services Rhode Island provides to persons up to age 22.
Accordingly, she argues that the IDEA obliges the state to
provide FAPE to students with disabilities up to age 22,
which Rhode Island does not currently do.
review de novo the district court's ruling on the
parties' cross-motions for summary judgment. See AES
P.R., L.P. v. Trujillo-Panisse, 857 F.3d 101, 110 (1st
Cir. 2017). In assessing the competing views of Rhode
Island's obligation, we begin by determining the meaning
of "public education" as used in the IDEA. We then
consider whether Rhode Island's adult education services
constitute "public education" within that meaning.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act
The Meaning of "Public Education"
IDEA requires states to provide "[a] free appropriate
public education . . . to all children with disabilities
residing in the State between the ages of 3 and 21,
inclusive[.]" 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(A). Pursuant
to this mandate, all students "who are [otherwise]
eligible for special education services are entitled to
continue receiving those services until they turn
twenty-two." L.A. Unified Sch. Dist.
v. Garcia, 669 F.3d 956, 959 (9th Cir.
2012); see also St. Johnsbury Acad. v.
D.H., 240 F.3d 163, 168-69 (2d Cir. 2001).
Notwithstanding this general requirement, the IDEA permits an
exception to the applicable age range: "[t]he obligation
to make a free appropriate public education available to all
children with disabilities does not apply with respect to
children . . . [aged] 18 through 21 in a State to the extent
that its application to those children would be inconsistent
with State law or practice, or the order of any court,
respecting the provision of public education to [such]
children[.]" 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(B)(i).
assessing the meaning of the phrase, "inconsistent with
State law or practice," the Ninth Circuit examined the
IDEA's legislative history. See E.R.K. ex rel.
R.K. v. Haw. Dep't of Educ., 728
F.3d 982, 986-87 (9th Cir. 2013). Citing the Senate Report
accompanying the 1975 statute that first created the
exception, the Ninth Circuit held that §
1412(a)(1)(B)(i) means that a state may only deny FAPE to
students with disabilities ages 18 through 21 to the extent
it also abstains from providing "public education"
to students without disabilities of the same ages. See
id. at 987 (quoting S. Rep. No. 94-168, 1975
U.S.C.C.A.N. 1425, 1442-43 (1975) (explaining that the
"exception shall not apply . . . where a state does now
in fact provide or assure the provision of free public
education to non-handicapped children in these age
groups")). We agree with this interpretation of §
1412(a)(1)(B)(i). Appellees do not challenge it. Therefore, a
state's provision of "public education" for
students from age 18 through age 21 triggers the IDEA's
§ 1412(a)(1)(A) FAPE mandate for students with
disabilities in the same age range.
IDEA, however, does not include "public education"
among the three dozen terms for which the statute provides
definitions. See 20 U.S.C. § 1401. We infer
from that absence Congress's recognition that
"public education" has a commonly understood
meaning accessible to courts if they must resolve disputes
involving the meaning of that phrase. See United States
v. Chuong Van Duong, 665 F.3d 364, 366 (1st Cir. 2012)
("We assume that the words that Congress chose to
implement its wishes, if not specifically defined, carry
their ordinary meaning and accurately express Congress's
intent." (quoting Boivin v.
Black, 225 F.3d 36, 40 (1st Cir. 2000)); In re
Hill, 562 F.3d 29, 32 (1st Cir. 2009) (same). Appellees
agree that the term "public education" should
"carr[y] its ordinary meaning," and, indeed, this
ordinary meaning assumption is a rule of necessity. Faced
with a case that turns on the meaning of an undefined
statutory term, we cannot decline to decide the lawsuit
because Congress failed to provide a definition. Instead, we
draw on our awareness of ordinary usage, as Congress would
have understood it.
begin with the two core attributes of "public
education" that are undisputed: (1) a significant level
of state or local governmental funding, and (2) the public
administration or oversight of the educational services.
Although appellees advocate for a narrower conception of
"public education" under the IDEA, see
infra Section II.B, they acknowledge that "public
education" is education that is "subject to and
meeting state standards" and provided "at public
view that "public education" is commonly understood
to involve government funding and administration or oversight
is confirmed by our review of multiple dictionary
definitions. Although dictionaries are not dispositive in
interpreting statutory language, they provide useful guidance
on the common meaning of words and phrases. United
States v. Lachman, 387 F.3d 42, 51
(1st Cir. 2004) ("Dictionaries of the English language
are a fundamental tool in ascertaining the plain meaning of
terms used in statutes and regulations."); see
also, e.g., Wis. Cent. Ltd.
v. United States, 138 S.Ct. 2067, 2071
(2018); Voisine v. United States,
136 S.Ct. 2272, 2278 (2016). In this instance, for example,
the Oxford English Dictionary, considered "one of the
most authoritative on the English language,"
Taniguchi v. Kan Pac. Saipan,
Ltd., 132 S.Ct. 1997, 2003 (2012), defines public
education, in relevant part, as "education provided by
the State," Oxford English Dictionary,
http://www.oed.com (2018); see also The Oxford
English Dictionary 780 (2d ed. 1989) (stating that
"public" means, inter alia, "provided or
supported at the public expense, and under public control: as
in public elementary school").
while the Random House Dictionary of the English Language
does not contain an entry for "public education,"
it defines "public" as being "maintained at
the public expense and under public control," and it
defines "public school" as a place "maintained
at public expense for the education of the children of a
community or district and that constitutes a part of a system
of free public education commonly including primary and
secondary schools." The Random House Dictionary of
the English Language 1562-63 (2d ed. 1987); see also
Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary 1562-63
(2d ed. 1997) (same). Ultimately, while exact language is
bound to differ among dictionaries, we find helpful the
shared dictionary focus on state funding and a degree of
state control for the confirmation it offers of our
understanding of the ordinary meaning of "public
these two attributes are consistent with the IDEA's
definition of the related term "free appropriate public
education" -- the educational guarantee at the heart of
the statute. See Hernández-Miranda
v. Empresas Díaz Massó, Inc.,
651 F.3d 167, 171 (1st Cir. 2011) ("To determine
ordinary meaning, we may consult dictionary definitions . . .
and the statutory context in which the words are
used."). The FAPE contemplated by the statute is
"provided at public expense, under public supervision
and direction." 20 U.S.C. §
1401(9)(A). Therefore, the IDEA's definition of
FAPE is consistent with the two core attributes of a
"public education" that we identify.
respect, however, we must supplement this ordinary
understanding of "public education" with an
additional attribute discernable from the way in which the
IDEA uses the phrase. The two core attributes we have
identified could apply to education at all levels, including
post-secondary schooling. Yet "public education" in
the context of the IDEA is limited to educational
opportunities only through the academic level associated with
completion of secondary school. We see this endpoint in
multiple provisions. For example, the IDEA defines a type of
services called "transition services" as activities
designed "to facilitate [a child with a
disability's] movement from school to post-school
activities, including post-secondary education[.]" 20
U.S.C. § 1401(34). The definition of "transition
services" implies that "public education"
within the meaning of the IDEA includes only education up
through a "secondary education." Similarly, the
IDEA defines FAPE as including "an appropriate
preschool, elementary school, or secondary school
education." 20 U.S.C. §1401(9)(C). Since providing
"public education" triggers the FAPE requirement,
it is logical that the two terms apply to the same levels of
schooling. We find further confirmation of this scope in the
IDEA's statement of purpose, which likewise uses
terminology commonly associated with secondary-level
achievement: "educational outcomes," §
1400(c)(9), "educational results," §
1400(d)(3), and "graduation rates," §
beyond the two attributes of "public education" at
the core of that term's ordinary usage -- public funding
and public administration or oversight -- "public
education" within the meaning of the IDEA includes the
objective of educating students up to the level of academic
proficiency associated with the completion of secondary
school. Appellees do not dispute that these three attributes
characterize "public education" within the meaning
of the IDEA. However, they insist that an additional
"Traditional Public Schools"
appellees contend that the ordinary meaning of "public
education" is limited to education that is provided at
"traditional public schools." They state that
"'public education,' as used in the applicable
IDEA limitation section, is not separate from traditional
public schools, but instead refers to traditional,
standards-based public school education." Since the
educational services at issue in this case are not delivered
at "traditional public schools," appellees claim
that those services are not "public education"
within the meaning of the IDEA.
support their narrow reading of "public education"
by invoking various provisions of state and federal law in a
fashion that is incompatible with the IDEA's
"wide-ranging remedial purpose intended to protect the
rights of children with disabilities[.]" Avila
v. Spokane Sch. Dist. 81, 852 F.3d 936, 943
(9th Cir. 2017); see also Diaz-Fonseca v.
Puerto Rico, 451 F.3d 13, 29 (1st Cir. 2006)
(discussing the IDEA's "remedial structure");
E.M. v. N.Y.C. Dep't of Educ.,
758 F.3d 442, 454 (2d Cir. 2014) (discussing the IDEA's
"remedial purpose"). Defining "public
education" only as education that is delivered at
so-called "traditional" public schools would
significantly curtail the number of students with
disabilities -- particularly those students ages 18 through
21 -- who would be entitled to FAPE under the IDEA. Hence, we
approach appellees' attempt to circumscribe the
IDEA's reach mindful of "the familiar canon of
statutory construction that remedial legislation should be
construed broadly to effectuate its purposes."
Tcherepnin v. Knight, 389 U.S.
332, 336 (1967).
Rhode Island State Law
cite numerous provisions of Rhode Island state law in which
they say the term "public education" refers to
their notion of "traditional" public schools. They
assert that an inquiry into Rhode Island law is appropriate
because § 1412(a)(1)(B)(i) speaks of whether the
provision of FAPE beyond age 18 "would be inconsistent
with State law or practice . . . respecting the
provision of public education." 20 U.S.C. §
1412(a)(1)(B)(i) (emphasis added).
reject appellees' premise that Rhode Island law should
play any role in determining the meaning of "public
education" as used in § 1412(a)(1)(B)(i) of the
IDEA. That section does not delegate the definition of
"public education" to the states. The reference to
"[s]tate law or practice" relates only to whether a
state discretionarily provides "public
education" to students aged 18 through 21. What
constitutes "public education" does not itself vary
from state to state. Indeed, to allow each state to define
"public education" would not only result in fifty
different interpretations of the IDEA, but it would also
permit states to circumvent the FAPE requirement by
characterizing any educational services they provide to
students aged 18 through 21 as something other than
"public education." Even more fundamentally, we
find appellees' invocation of Rhode Island law at odds
with their position that the ordinary meaning of "public
education" should apply in this case. Logically, it
makes no sense to assert that the ordinary meaning of a term,
as Congress would have understood it, depends on how an
individual state uses that term in its local statutes. Put
simply, Rhode Island law is not a proper guide to the meaning
of "public education" under the IDEA.
Other Federal Code Provisions
also rely on 29 U.S.C. § 3272 of the Workforce
Innovation and Opportunity Act ("WIOA"), which
defines the term "adult education," and §
1401(34) of the IDEA, which defines the term "transition
services" and lists "adult education" as one
such service. Appellees contend that these provisions somehow
reveal Congress's intent to make "public
education" and "adult education" mutually
exclusive categories -- i.e., if something is adult
education, it cannot also be public education. Starting from
that premise, appellees seemingly argue that the distinction
between the two categories depends on whether education is
delivered at a "traditional public school."
provision supports the appellees' conception of
"public education." To start, their reliance on the
definition of "adult education" in § 3272 of
the WIOA is misplaced. This definition became law
nearly forty years after the relevant portions of the IDEA,
in the context of a workplace-focused, not an
education-focused, statute. By invoking the WIOA, appellees
appear to be relying on a version of the "whole
code" canon of statutory interpretation, "under
which courts construe terms across different statutes
consistently." Abbe R. Gluck & Lisa Schultz
Bressman, Statutory Interpretation from the Inside -- an
Empirical Study of Congressional Drafting, Delegation, and
the Canons: Part I, 65 Stan. L. Rev. 901, 936 (2013).
However, the notion that Congress, acting on legislation
separated by forty years and addressing different subjects,
would be attentive to the consistent usage of a phrase,
reflects a fanciful version of the legislative drafting
process. Indeed, there is little evidence that treating the
United States Code as a single body of consistent law
"reflects how Congress drafts or even how it tries to
draft" legislation. Id. In any event, given the
differences in both time and subject matter between the WIOA
and the IDEA, we find appellees' invocation of the WIOA
wholly irrelevant to our inquiry.
§ 1401(34) of the IDEA,  the term "adult
education" is mentioned in a list of programs that may
constitute "transition services." According to
appellees, "Congress's use of the term 'adult
education' [in the definition of transition services]
demonstrates its intent to distinguish adult education from
public education." See Citizens Awareness Network,
Inc. v. United States, 391 F.3d 338,
346 (1st Cir. 2004) ("Congress's use of differential
language in various sections of the same statute is presumed
to be intentional.").
than another mechanical invocation of a canon of statutory
interpretation, appellees fail to offer any support for this
claim. The IDEA merely states in § 1401(34) that
"adult education" is a type of transition service
when it is "focused on improving the academic and
functional achievement of [a] child with a disability to
facilitate the child's movement from school to
post-school activities." 20 U.S.C. § 1401(34). The
fact that some forms of adult education constitute
"transition services" under the IDEA does not
remotely suggest that adult education in other forms is not
"public education" within the meaning of the IDEA.
Appellees fail to confront this flaw in their argument. In
fact, when asserting that adult education is not "public
education," appellees do not even offer a definition for
the term "adult education" within the meaning of
the IDEA. Ultimately, then, appellees argue that we should
take the term "public education," which Congress
did not define, and the term "adult education,"
which Congress did not define, and summarily conclude that
Congress nevertheless designed them as mutually exclusive
categories of education. We reject this unsupportable view of
appellees cite an IDEA regulation defining the term
"high school diploma" to support their claim that
"public education" within the meaning of the IDEA
can occur only at what they deem "traditional"
public schools. A provision of the Code of Federal
Regulations, 34 C.F.R. § 300.102, clarifies that
"[t]he obligation to make FAPE available to all children
with disabilities does not apply . . . [to] [c]hildren with
disabilities who have graduated from high school with a
regular high school diploma," but, "the term
regular high school diploma means the standard high school
diploma . . . [not] a recognized equivalent of a diploma,
such as a general equivalency diploma." 34 C.F.R. §
300.102(a)(3)(i), (iv). Appellees argue that if receipt of a
non-traditional high school diploma is insufficient to end
FAPE services, it should follow that publicly funded
educational services that help students obtain equivalency
diplomas should likewise not count as "public
misconstrue the IDEA regulation. Although an equivalency
diploma or other alternative credential may differ in some
respects from a regular high school diploma, it does not
follow that educational services which help students attain
an equivalency diploma are not "public education."
Education is the process by which students attain academic
competency, not the document memorializing that process.
Indeed, the evident purpose of the regulation is to prohibit
states from terminating FAPE services early by
bestowing a potentially inferior "general equivalency
diploma, certificate of completion, certificate of
attendance, or similar lesser credential." 34
C.F.R. § 300.102(a)(3)(iv) (emphasis added). In other
words, the regulation is aimed at preventing termination of
FAPE services before a student actually demonstrates the
level of academic achievement commensurate with receiving a
regular high school diploma. This regulation furthers the
IDEA's remedial purpose of protecting the educational
rights of students with disabilities, an objective at odds
with appellees' reliance on it to curtail access to
special education services.