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P.F. v. Taylor

United States Court of Appeals, Seventh Circuit

January 22, 2019

P.F., a minor, by A.F., his parent, et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants
Carolyn Stanford Taylor,[*] State Superintendent of Public Instruction, et al., Defendants-Appellees.

          Argued April 20, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. No. 14-cv-792 - William M. Conley, Judge.

          Before Sykes and Barrett, Circuit Judges, and Durkin, District Judge. [†]


         Under Wisconsin's open-enrollment program, a public-school student can apply to transfer from his resident school district to a nonresident district that has an available space for him. Wis.Stat. § 118.51. The program distinguishes between "regular education and special education spaces." Id. § 118.51(5)(a)1. If a student with a disability requires special services, a nonresident district may deny the student's transfer application if it lacks the services or space necessary to meet those special needs. Id. § 118.51(5)(a)4.

         This suit concerns a group of disabled schoolchildren whose transfer applications were denied because nonresident districts determined that they could not meet the students' special needs. The students' parents, on their children's behalf, sued the school districts and various state actors seeking injunctive, declaratory, and compensatory relief under Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act ("ADA"), 42 U.S.C. § 12132; section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, 29 U.S.C. § 794(a); and the Equal Protection Clause, U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1. They argued that the program unlawfully discriminates against disabled children because of their disabilities. The district judge concluded that the program did not violate federal law and entered summary judgment for the defendants.

         We affirm. Differential treatment of special-needs students doesn't make the program unlawful. Federal law "forbids discrimination based on stereotypes about a handicap, but it does not forbid decisions based on the actual attributes of the handicap." Anderson v. Univ. of Wis., 841 F.2d 737, 740 (7th Cir. 1988). The program makes decisions based on the actual needs of disabled students, so it complies with federal law. And even if we analyze the case as a request for an accommodation, the requested change would fundamentally alter the program, and neither the ADA nor the Rehabilitation Act require fundamental alterations.

         I. Background

         In keeping with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400, 1412(a)(1), Wisconsin law guarantees children with disabilities a "free appropriate public education" and requires school districts to provide special-education services according to a disabled child's "individualized education program." Wis.Stat. §§ 115.76(7), 115.77(1m)(d). An individualized education program ("IEP") outlines the "special education and related services" or "program modifications or supports" that the disabled student requires. Id. § 115.787(2)(c). Typically the school district in which a special-needs student resides must satisfy the IEP requirements unless the student transfers districts. Id. §§ 115.76(10), 115.77.

         Wisconsin's open-enrollment program permits such a transfer. Id. § 118.51(2). The program operates on a calendar. In January school districts determine how many excess "spaces" are available in both regular-education classrooms and special-education services. Id. § 118.51(5)(a)1. They can consider factors like "class size limits, pupil-teacher ratios[, ] or enrollment projections." Id. § 118.51(5)(a)1, (5)(a)4. Regular-education spaces are typically determined by grade level, id. § 118.51(5)(a)1, while "special education spaces" are determined "by program or services," Wis. Admin. Code PI § 36.06(5)(a).

         Between February and April, interested students may submit transfer applications to up to three nonresident districts. Wis.Stat. § 118.51(3)(a)1. If an applicant has an IEP in place, the resident district will send a copy of the plan to the nonresident district. Id. § 118.51(3)(a)1m. Beginning in May nonresident districts determine which applications they will accept by comparing available space to the needs of the applicants. Id. § 118.51(3)(a)2. For applicants with IEPs, nonresident districts determine whether they have the capacity to meet each student's special needs. Relevant factors for this analysis include

[w]hether the special education or related services described in the child's individualized education program under [Wis. Stat.] § 115.787(2) are available in the nonresident school district or whether there is space available to provide the special education or related services identified in the child's individualized education program, including any class size limits, pupil-teacher ratios[, ] or enrollment projections established by the nonresident school board.

Id. § 118.51(5)(a)4.

         Districts notify applicants of their acceptance or rejection in June. Id. ยง 118.51(3)(a)3. Most applications are accepted, including those submitted by students with IEPs. In 2013- 2014, districts approved 3, 718 out of 5, 822 transfer applications for students with IEPs, or roughly 64%. The ...

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