Law & Courts

Special Education Case That Made It to Supreme Court Enters Final Chapter

By Christina A. Samuels — February 13, 2018 3 min read
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When the U.S. Supreme Court created a stronger standard for special education in a unaminous decision last year, observers could be forgiven for believing that was the end of the story.

But for the family at the center of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, the decision had the practical result of sending their dispute—at this point, eight years old—back to the lower court to be evaluated under the standard that the higher court outlined. That standard: that special education must offer “an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances,” not an education that is just a little bit more than nothing.

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock, in Denver, ruled that the 66,000-student Colorado district is responsible for the private school costs for Endrew, known as Drew, who has been attending a private school for students with autism since he was in elementary school.

“The [individualized education program] was not appropriately ambitious because it did not give [Drew] the chance to meet challenging objectives under his particular circumstances,” Babcock wrote.

Joe and Jennifer F., who have asked for their last names to be withheld to protect their privacy, told Chalkbeat Colorado that “our attorney reached out many times over the past 8+ years in an attempt to speak and potentially settle this case out of court, but the school district time and again rejected our overtures to sit down and talk.”

The Denver Post, which first reported on the ruling, said that the district may owe an amount in the seven figures. The paper said that the district is assessing the ruling and further options.

High Court Ruled on the Benefits of Special Education

By the time the case made it to the Supreme Court, it was focused on a narrow point of law: how much benefit should special education provide to students with disabilities?

In 2010, Drew’s parents pulled him out of the district because, they said, his individualized education program was not designed to help him progress. They argued that the district should be required to pay for Drew’s private school tuition.

An administrative-law judge, a federal district judge, and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals all decided against the parents. The appeals court ruling in August 2015 said that Drew was gaining “some” educational benefit from his individualized education program. Referring to an earlier case in the same circuit, the court also said the IDEA requires that special education only offer a more than “de minimis,” or trivial, benefit.

The Supreme Court case turned that around. “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,” wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.

Since the Supreme Court ruling, special education advocates have said it would prompt educators to set high standards for students with disabilities. The case has also been embraced by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who said that the ruling supports the importance of school choice.

“Every family should have the ability to choose the learning environment that is right for their child. They shouldn’t have to sue their way to the Supreme Court to get it,” DeVos told a gathering of special education leaders last year.

In an earlier interview with Chalkbeat Colorado, Drew’s parents said they’re frustrated that their case is being used to support school choice. “To hold us out there as a poster child on how a private school is working for our child and how this is how school choice is supposed to work, really bugs me,” Joe F. told reporter Ann Schimke.

Image: The Associated Press

A version of this news article first appeared in the On Special Education blog.