January 2018Volume 4Number 3PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)

Special education

In an 8-0 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District RE–1, 580 U.S. ___ (2017), ruled in favor of a higher standard of education for children with disabilities. Advocates and parents say the case dramatically expands the rights of special-education students in the United States, creates a nationwide standard for special education, and empowers parents as they advocate for their children in schools. Critics however say the decision will not have any impact on schools, arguing that the vast majority already provide a good education for children with disabilities.

The central question in the case was whether schools must provide a meaningful education in which children show significant progress and are given substantially equal opportunities as typical children, or may they provide an education that results in some improvement?

The facts of the case established that the parents of Endrew F. removed him from his local public school, where he had made little progress, and placed him in a private school, where they said he made “significant” academic and social improvement.

In 2012, his parents then filed a complaint with the Colorado Department of Education to recover the cost of tuition at the private school, which was then approximately $70,000 per year. The lower courts ruled on behalf of the school district, determining that the intent of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is to ensure handicapped kids have access to public education, and not to guarantee any particular level of education. The parents appealed, eventually landing at the U.S. Supreme Court.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. stated in the opinion that a child’s “educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances” and that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”

“When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing ‘merely more than de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all,” Roberts wrote. “For children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to ‘sitting idly. . . awaiting the time when they were old enough to “drop out.”’”

Advocates for children with disabilities say this case will help millions of students. For the 2013-14 school year, 6.5 million students or 13 percent of the public school population, had an Individual Education Plan (IEP). The court’s decision increases the education expectations for children with disabilities and requires schools to consider each child’s individual strengths and weaknesses when writing an IEP. Schools can no longer provide a “one-size-fits-all” IEP, Gary Mayerson, a civil-rights lawyer in New York City and a board member of Autism Speaks, explained in an interview. “Clearly this is the most monumental IDEA case decided by the high court in over 30 years,” he said.

Parents of special-needs children are ecstatic about this decision, according to Amanda Morin, a parent of two children with IEPs and a contributor for the parent website Understood.org. Morin said, “I’m thrilled, because I think it really empowers parents to feel confident when they go in the door [of an IEP meeting]. They can say that the law says that this program must be tailored so my child makes progress.”

A number of education groups, including The Council of the Great City Schools, the School Superintendents Association (AASA), and the National School Boards Association, supported the Douglas County School District in this case, however, saying that the standard for special education did not require change, because the system was already working for kids.

Sasha Pudelski, a lobbyist for the professional association, said that the decision will not have a big impact on district practices. The court decision was actually quite moderate, she said. The court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that a special-education student should have a “substantially equal” standard of education as those of typical children. Instead, the justices focused on the idea that children with disabilities should receive an education that shows progress in light of their disabilities. Pudelski said that schools are already doing that. “It is not going to be groundbreaking for districts,” she said. “It’s a flexible standard that defers to the expertise of the schools.”

How this decision will play out on the school level, given the rising costs of special education and diminishing support from the federal government, is anyone’s guess. But, for now, those concerns are not dampening the celebrations of parents and special-needs advocates.

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