Special Education

U.S. Supreme Court Sets Date to Hear Special Education Case

By Christina A. Samuels — December 07, 2016 1 min read
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The U.S. Supreme Court has set Jan. 11 as the date that it will hear a case revolving around the level of benefit that special education is supposed to provide to students with disabilities.

Special education observers have said the case, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, has major implications for students and for school districts and centers on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. As I explained in an article on Endrew that ran in October:

In [Hendrick Hudson District Board of Education v. Rowley,] the Supreme Court said that the IDEA requires instruction that is "reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefit." The court intentionally declined to say just how much benefit would be adequate. "[C]ourts must be careful to avoid imposing their view of preferable educational methods upon the states," Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the six-justice majority. But lower courts have grappled with that question and come up with different terms. Should the educational benefit to students be "meaningful"? Are schools required to offer just "some" benefit? Or can the standard be met if educational benefits are little more than trivial? That's the question that the newer case is intended to answer. Endrew, called "Drew" in court briefs, is now a 17-year-old student with autism living in suburban Denver. In 2010, his parents pulled him out of the 66,000-student Douglas County district because they said he wasn't making any meaningful educational progress in public school. The parents 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. While the parents lost at the lower-court levels, they gained a powerful supporter when they appealed to the Supreme Court—the federal government. "No parent or educator in America would say that a child has received an 'appropriate' or a 'specially suitable' or 'proper' education 'in the circumstances' when all the child has received are benefits that are barely more than trivial," wrote the U.S. solicitor general's office, urging the Supreme Court to take the case. "That is particularly true when a child is capable of achieving much more."

Attention from Interested Parties

A dozen organizations have filed “friend of the court” briefs related to Endrew F. v Douglas, including members of Congress, disability rights organizations, and former Education Department officials. All but one of the briefs has been in support of the family in this case.

The National Association of State Directors of Special Education said in its brief that the organization supports neither side in the case, but wanted to offer its professional view. “We can attest that our educators are prepared to and do provide an education at a level more meaningful than the Tenth Circuit’s ‘just-above-trivial’ standard. Our educators tailor their efforts to each individual student to make sure that each student’s education is meaningful in light of the specific abilities and educational challenges.”

More than 100 current and former members of Congress said in their brief that “it strains credulity to think that Congress would have expended the time and effort to enact and amend [the IDEA] merely to give each student with a disability any ‘just above de minimis’ educational benefit.”

The National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools and National Alliance for Public Charter Schools wrote a brief stating their belief that the IDEA calls for more than a trivial educational benefit. "[W]e find adoption of a higher standard is the most consistent with the charter school movement’s emphasis on high expectations for all students and its commitment to serving students with disabilities enrolled in charter schools,” the brief stated.

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