High Court Issues First Major Ruling On Handicapped

By Susan Walton — August 18, 1982 5 min read
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In its first interpretation of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled this summer that a New York school district is not required to provide a sign-language interpreter for a deaf student.

However, the Court’s ruling in Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley nevertheless affirmed most aspects of P.L. 94-142, saying that schools must continue to provide “personalized instruction with sufficient support services to permit the handicapped child to benefit educationally from that instruction.”

Excerpts from the Supreme Court’s decision begin on page 18

In its 6-3 decision, the Court reversed a ruling by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit, which held that the law requires school districts to provide the services that allow handicapped children to reach their “full potential.”

The Court also ruled that the role of the courts need not be confined to questions of procedure; judges may also consider whether a program provides educational benefits to the handicapped child.

The reversal came as a blow to advocacy groups, many of which agreed with the appellate court’s interpretation. But despite that, representatives of education and advocacy groups say that the Court’s ruling was fair and that it leaves intact most of the hard-won rights of handicapped children.

Currently, about 4.4 million children receive services under the law, which many school administrators regard as one of the most complex and confusing to administer.

The case involved a question of statutory interpretation: What is the definition of “free appropriate public education”? And does the law require the school district to provide services that would allow Amy Rowley, a deaf 4th grader, “an opportunity to achieve [her] full potential commensurate with the opportunity provided to other children,” as the Court of Appeals held?

The child’s parents, both of whom are deaf, contended that Amy would reach her full potential only if she were provided with a sign-language interpreter. The school district, however, argued that she was making better-than-average progress without the interpreter, and that the other services with which she was provided fulfilled the requirements of the law.

Although they consider the Court’s ruling against the Rowleys to be fair, both educators and advocacy groups say that they are still studying the ruling and that it is too early to gauge its effect.

Paul B. Salmon, executive director of the American Association of School Administrators, said he thought the decision was reasonable and would be useful to administrators. “It is helpful because it does clarify an area that was unclear.” The “free appropriate” clause of the statute, he said, has been “hard to nail down,” and the Court’s ruling offers additional guidance.

Students’ interests, he added, are protected under the decision since school officials are still required to make individual assessments and education plans and must demonstrate that a handicapped child is benefiting from the services provided.

In addition, he said, both parents and school officials continue to be involved in decisions about a child’s program.

Frederick J. Weintraub, a spokesman for the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), said in a prepared statement that “the Court adequately interpreted the Congressional intent of the 1975 act and its procedural mechanisms that must be employed by schools to achieve those purposes.” However, he said, “vigilance on the part of advocates will be needed to ensure proper interpretation at all levels of services to handicapped children and youth.”

In its statement, the council also pointed out that in the ruling, the Court appeared to issue a “two-pronged test of appropriateness.” First, have the procedures outlined in the law been adhered to? And second, are the individually designed instructional program and related services of “educational benefit” to the child?

‘Educational Standards’

According to the Court, “Such instruction and services must be provided at public expense, must meet the State’s educational standards, must approximate grade levels used in the State’s regular education, and must comport with the child’s IEP [individualized education plan], as formulated in accordance with the Act’s requirements.”

Indeed, Associate Justice William Rehnquist wrote in the majority opinion, “The requirement that States provide ‘equal’ educational opportunities would thus seem to present an entirely unworkable standard requiring impossible measurements and comparisons.”

In Massachusetts, where the state law on the education of handicapped children served as a model for P.L. 94-142, lawyers for the education department are “still looking at the impact,” according to a spokesman for the agency. The lawyers have suggested, he said, that the case may be too specific to have broad implications for the administration of the federal law.

The Supreme Court’s decision was based largely on the legislative history of the act, which was passed after several legal cases increased interest in and awareness of the plight of handicapped children. Many schools refused to accept handicapped children, even if their handicapping condition in no way impaired their intelligence.

It was the needs of those children who were being denied access to education that the Congress was addressing when it wrote the legislation, the Justices ruled. The intent of Congress in passing the act, they wrote, "... was more to open the door of public education to handicapped children by means of specialized educational services than to guarantee any particular substantive level of education once inside.”

In its examination of the legislative history of P.L. 94-142, the Court found no evidence that Congress intended the law to require school districts to provide services that maximized each handicapped child’s potential “commensurate with the opportunity provided other children.”

The Court acknowledged that if schools provided only those services available to nonhandicapped students, they would probably fail to meet the requirements of the law. However, the legislative history offers no evidence, said the majority, that Congress intended to require schools to go to the opposite extreme. “To require, on the other hand, the furnishing of every special service necessary to maximize each handicapped child’s potential is, we think, further than Congress intended to go,” Justice Rehnquist wrote.

The three dissenting Justices, however, contended in their opinion that both the majority’s standard for free appropriate public education and its standard for judicial review disregarded Congressional intent.

In the case of judicial review, Justice Byron R. White wrote in the dissent: “Both the language of the Act and the legislative history, however, demonstrate that Congress intended the courts to conduct a far more searching inquiry.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 18, 1982 edition of Education Week as High Court Issues First Major Ruling On Handicapped


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