Law & Courts

U.S. Supreme Court Considers Level of Special Education Benefits

By Christina A. Samuels — January 11, 2017 1 min read
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What level of educational benefit should school districts confer on children with disabilities to provide them with a free, appropriate public education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act?

That’s the question the U.S. Supreme Court grappled with Wednesday when it heard the case Endrew F. v. Douglas County School Board. (I also wrote a preview of the Endrew F. case, in which I interviewed the family at the center of the dispute and several legal experts.)

Reporters who heard the argument believe the court seemed receptive to the idea that “some educational benefit"—a phrase used in an earlier Supreme Court decision—should be defined to mean “more than de minimis, or trivial.” That’s the standard used by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, as well as many other circuits. The parents of Endrew F., a 17-year-old Colorado student with autism, disagreed with that standard, as did the Obama administration, which urged the high court to take up the case.

Here’s a roundup of coverage:

Education Week: “By the end of the argument, it seemed apparent that a majority of the eight-member court was disinclined to accept the standard adopted in this case by the 10th Circuit court, though it was unclear how far the justices might go in backing the student.”

The Denver Post: “At times, even the justices seemed perplexed as to how they could better outline the appropriate level of benefit for students with special needs. ... ‘What are we supposed to do to make that happen?’ asked Chief Justice John Roberts.

The Wall Street Journal: “The law should be read to require ‘significant progress toward grade-level standards, not as close as possible to grade-level standards,’ Justice Department lawyer Irv Gornstein told the court. ‘And we think that this is just what most school boards are already doing.’”

Los Angeles Times: "[M]ost of the justices appeared to favor setting a slightly higher standard, one that should lead the child to make measured progress on academics or behavior. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said it would not be sufficient for schools to provide an expert for five minutes a day and claim they were providing the child ‘some benefit.’”

Finally, if you want to immerse yourself in the case, here’s a transcript of the oral arguments in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School Board.

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