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K.L. v. Rhode Island Board of Education

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit

October 29, 2018



          Jason H. Kim, with whom Sonja L. Deyoe and Paul Aston were on brief, for appellant.

          Paul Sullivan for appellees.

          Before Lynch and Lipez, Circuit Judges, Ponsor, District Judge. [*]


         This 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.

         At the 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.

         We 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.

         I. Procedural History

         K.L.'s 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").

         Following 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.

         In this 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.

         We 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.

         II. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

         A. The Meaning of "Public Education"

         The 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).

         In 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.

         The 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.

         We 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 expense."

         The 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, (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").

         Similarly, 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 education."

         Moreover, 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).[1] Therefore, the IDEA's definition of FAPE is consistent with the two core attributes of a "public education" that we identify.[2]

         In one 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," § 1400(c)(14).

         Accordingly, 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 limitation applies.

         B. "Traditional Public Schools"

         Specifically, 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.[3]

         Appellees 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).[4]

         1. Rhode Island State Law

         Appellees 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).

         We 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.

         2. Other Federal Code Provisions

         Appellees 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."

         Neither provision supports the appellees' conception of "public education." To start, their reliance on the definition of "adult education" in § 3272 of the WIOA[5] 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.

         As for § 1401(34) of the IDEA, [6] 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.").

         Other 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."[7] 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 legislative drafting.[8]

         3. IDEA Regulations

         Lastly, 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 education."

         Appellees 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.

         C. ...

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