For disabled students in Washington, the right to free special education services lasts until the end of the school year in which they turn 21. A class-action lawsuit filed in federal court this week says this age cutoff violates federal law.
The suit, aimed at the state's education agency, seeks to raise the cap to 22 years old. It argues that under the federal statute, students are entitled to services through their 21st year and up until 22 if they live in states like Washington, which offer publicly funded basic education programs to nondisabled adults, such as GED programs.
The class of plaintiffs includes thousands of students who aged out of special education services before their 22nd birthday, according to the lawsuit, and attorneys want compensation for these students for being denied services under the current age limit.
This argument "is not a reach," said Lara Hruska, managing partner at Cedar Law PLLC, one of two firms — the other is Susman Godfrey LLP — handling the case against the state.
Federal courts have sided with this reasoning in similar cases in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Hawaii. In 2021, Maine voluntarily increased its age cap from 20 to 22 after reviewing the ruling in the Rhode Island case. States like Michigan go above and beyond the federal law, setting their cap at 25.
"We are aware of the lawsuit, and are working with the Attorney General's Office on next steps," wrote Katy Payne, a spokesperson for the state education department, in an email. "We are also working with the Legislature to understand the implications and financial impacts for Washington state if the law in Washington were to change."
The state has not yet filed a response in court. Before filing the suit, Hruska said she and her colleagues approached the state about making an emergency rule change to this effect, but saw no movement.
The class representative in this case is a Kirkland man referred to as N.D. in the suit. He was receiving services for autism at an out-of-state school paid for by the state until this past summer, when he turned 21 on August 31. Had his birthday been just been weeks later, he would have received an additional year of free schooling under the existing policy.