The Supreme Court Rules In Favor Of A Special Education Student

Mar 22, 2017
Originally published on March 23, 2017 11:23 am

School districts must give students with disabilities the chance to make meaningful, "appropriately ambitious" progress, the Supreme Court said Wednesday in an 8-0 ruling.

The decision in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District could have far-reaching implications for the 6.5 million students with disabilities in the United States.

The case centered on a child with autism and attention deficit disorder whose parents removed him from public school in fifth grade. He went on to make better progress in a private school. His parents argued that the individualized education plan provided by the public school was inadequate, and they sued to compel the school district to pay his private school tuition.

The Supreme Court today sided with the family, overturning a lower court ruling in the school district's favor.

The federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act guarantees a "free appropriate public education" to all students with disabilities. Today's opinion held that "appropriate" goes further than what the lower courts had held.

"It cannot be right that the IDEA generally contemplates grade-level advancement for children with disabilities who are fully integrated in the regular classroom, but is satisfied with barely more than de minimis progress for children who are not," read the opinion, signed by Chief Justice John Roberts.

The case drew a dozen friend of the court briefs from advocates for students with disabilities who argued that it is time to increase rigor, expectations and accommodations for all.

"A standard more meaningful than just above trivial is the norm today," wrote the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

The ruling seems likely to increase pressure from families and advocates in that direction.

Significantly, Judge Neil Gorsuch, currently in confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court's vacant ninth seat, has repeatedly ruled the other way on similar cases.

IDEA's standard of a "free appropriate public education," reads Gorsuch's opinion in one of these cases, also about an autistic child in Colorado, "is not an onerous one." His precedent was directly contradicted by the Supreme Court this week.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn questioned him in light of this new ruling during his hearing, asking:

"Why ... did you want to lower the bar so low? "

Gorsuch responded that he had made a mistake. "I was wrong, Senator, because I was bound by circuit precedent, and I'm sorry."

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The Supreme Court ruled today in a case that will reverberate through America's public schools. The courts said districts must provide students with disabilities the chance to make appropriately ambitious progress. NPR's Cory Turner has more.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: At the center of this case are six and a half million kids and a federal law known as the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act or IDEA. It makes a promise to students with disabilities that their school will give them a free appropriate public education, also known as FAPE.

GARY MAYERSON: The problem has been that the FAPE entitlement has never been defined by the IDEA statute.

TURNER: Gary Mayerson is a board member with the advocacy group Autism Speaks. He says that word - appropriate - is vague. And when budgets are tight and services expensive, this sometimes leaves schools wondering just how far do they have to go to educate their students with disabilities?

More than three decades ago, the Supreme Court tried to clarify things ruling that schools have to provide some educational benefit. To clarify that, here's Nancy Reder of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

NANCY REDER: Basically, you have to provide a Ford, but you don't have to provide a Cadillac.

TURNER: But this debate about how much is enough raged on. The current case out of Colorado was brought by the family of a boy on the autism spectrum. Andrew, known as Drew, attended public school through fourth grade, but his parents worried he wasn't making as much progress as he could have been. So they enrolled him in a private school that specializes in working with children with autism. There he did progress.

Ultimately, Drew's parents sued the district, arguing it should have to pay for Drew's private school tuition. A lower court, the 10th Circuit, ruled against Drew's family arguing that his public school had only to provide, in legal terms, merely more than de minimis. That's a complicated way of saying not much at all. Here's Gary Mayerson with another analogy.

MAYERSON: If I say to you, for example, we're going to have lunch and I give you some grains of rice, I can say that we had some food, but it was hardly nourishing. It would hardly be enough.

TURNER: Today, the Supreme Court ruled for a more demanding standard. Writing on behalf of a unanimous Court, Chief Justice Roberts wrote that a child's educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances and that the goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.

With this ruling, the court likely didn't end the debate over what is a free appropriate public education. Instead, it doubled down on the original intent of the law that experts, teachers and parents need to work together to set high standards for kids and then help them meet them. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington.

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