Stories and Grievances: Special Education
United States' Supreme Court Decision in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District Helps Parents and Children With Special Needs
In a stunning 8-0 decision in the case Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, the U.S. Supreme Court 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.
How a New Supreme Court Ruling Could Affect Special Education
Advocates for students with disabilities argue the decision could help millions of children.
Lynne Sladky / AP
LAURA MCKENNA MAR 23, 2017
In a stunning 8-0 decision in the case Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, the U.S. Supreme Court 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. But critics say the decision will not have any impact on schools, arguing that the vast majority already provide a good education for those kids.
As I explained in January, the parents of Endrew F. removed him from his local public school, where he made little progress, and placed him in a private school, where they said he made “significant” academic and social improvement.
In 2012, Drew’s parents filed a complaint with the Colorado Department of Education to recover the cost of tuition at the school, which is now about $70,000 per year. The lower courts ruled on behalf of the school district on the grounds that the intent of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is to ensure handicapped kids have access to public education—not to guarantee any particular level of education once inside. But the parents appealed, with the case eventually landing at the Supreme Court.
The case revolved around a central question: Must schools provide a meaningful education in which children show significant progress and are given substantially equal opportunities as typical children, or can they provide an education that results in just some improvement?
On Wednesday, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. stated in the court 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.”?’?”
As the opinion was handed down, President Donald Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Judge Neil Gorsuch, was at the Senate for his confirmation hearings. The Senate committee handling the confirmation asked Judge Gorsuch why he ruled in similar cases in the lower courts that an education agency need only provide educational benefits for the child in question that are “merely ... more than de minimis.” Gorsuch told the committee that his decision in those cases was bound by circuit precedent.
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—received 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.
“The time of the decision couldn’t be better,” Mayerson said. “IEP season is underway in full force. Every school will now have the opportunity and time to comply with the new standard of care.” The impact of this case will be felt by students immediately.
As a long-time advocate for children with special needs, Mayerson is very pleased by this decision. “We have been fighting and advocating for these standards for years,” he said. “It is gratifying that the court understands disabilities today better than they did 30 years ago. It is heartening to see the decision be unanimous, particularly in these partisan times.”
Mimi Corcoran, the president of the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), agrees. “Today is a good day for children with disabilities. NCLD applauds this decision and will work with parents and educators to make it a reality,” she said in a statement.
“I’m excited about this decision,” Lindsay Jones, a vice president with the NCLD said. “The impact will be positive.” Jones said that the decision was thoughtful, and acknowledged that most special-education students attend regular public schools and aren’t in private settings. “The court clearly states that special-education children shouldn’t just be in the room. They must advance appropriately,” she 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.”