Special Education

Will High Court Ruling Raise Expectations for Special Ed.?

By Christina A. Samuels & Mark Walsh — March 24, 2017 6 min read
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Advocates for children with disabilities are cheering a recent decision by the U.S. Supreme Court as a clear win that establishes more-ambitious academic standards for special education students.

Representatives for some educational groups and districts, on the other hand, have a more measured response. They say that the March 22 decision in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District sets forth a standard for the level of benefit required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act that most school districts were exceeding already.

Both sides can find support for their views in the text of the unanimous decision, which was written by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. for the eight-member court.

The high court rejected language in a lower court ruling that special education must provide “merely more than de minimis”—or trivial—benefit to students.

“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,” Roberts said.

At the same time, the decision states that the individualized education programs that are crafted for students with disabilities must be “reasonable,” not a court’s vision of “ideal.” And, the high court rejected an argument that children with disabilities must be provided an education “substantially equal to the opportunities afforded children without disabilities.” That particular standard had been rejected in a 1982 special education case as unworkable, and the court said it was not going to deviate from that earlier analysis.

Creates a ‘Workable Standard’ for IDEA

Joe and Jennifer F., the parents of the student with autism who is at the center of this case, released a statement saying that, from the start, they felt it was wrong that the school district was only required to offer an education “which amounts to barely more than nothing.”

“We’re very hopeful that this clarified standard that the court has articulated is workable for both parents and schools moving forward. Families should not have to fight this hard to get their kids what they deserve and are entitled to by federal law,” said the parents, who have declined to be fully identified to protect their family’s privacy.

An attorney for the 67,000-student Douglas district, located between Denver and Colorado Springs, said the district is confident that it already meets the standard outlined by the court in this case.

“Notably, the court did not hold that the Douglas County school district failed to meet the new standard, or say that DCSD can’t proceed to prove that it met that standard in the Endrew F. matter,” said William Trachman, an attorney for the district. “Indeed, in this case, the Douglas County school district offered an appropriate individualized education plan, and we look forward to proving to the lower courts that the IEP meets the new, higher standard.”

The “de minimis” language that the high court struck down had been set forth by the Denver-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in a 2008 opinion written by Judge Neil M. Gorsuch. Gorsuch is President Donald Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court and he faced questions about the decision during his confirmation hearing, which were going on at the same time that the high court released its decision.

In setting aside the “more than de minimis” standard, Chief Justice Roberts said that “for children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to ‘sitting idly ... awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out,” quoting from a key 1982 Supreme Court precedent on special education, Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley. The Rowley case was the first case to reach the Supreme Court that centered on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act .

“The IDEA demands more,” the chief justice said. “It requires an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

Gauging Meaningful Progress for Students With Disabilities

Endrew, called Drew in court papers, is now 17. The case began, however, when he was still in elementary school. He started to exhibit serious behavior problems and by the end of 4th grade, his behavior had deteriorated to the point where he had made minimal progress on his educational goals.

His parents argued that the individualized education program that the district developed for 5th grade was just offering more of the same. They withdrew him from public school, enrolled him in a Denver private school called Firefly Autism House, and argued that the district should be responsible for his tuition.

The parents lost their case before an administrative law judge, a federal district judge, and the U.S. Court of Appeals before their appeal to the Supreme Court. In its ruling, the appeals court ruled “it is not the district’s burden to pay for his placement there when Drew was making some progress under its tutelage. That is all that is required.”

The Council for Parent Attorneys and Advocates was one of the organizations casting the decision as groundbreaking.

“We expect this unanimous decision ... to be transformative in the lives of the students and families for whom the law is intended to benefit,” it says in a statement.

Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, the top Democrat on the Senate education committee, said the ruling “sends a critically needed message: Every child deserves the opportunity to reach their full potential and receive a high-quality public education. With this ruling, the court has rightly reaffirmed Congress’ intent in [the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act] to hold schools accountable for providing students with disabilities meaningful educational benefit from the instruction and services they receive.”

No ‘Radical Alteration’ of Case Law

Kathleen Sullivan, the chief counsel for the Colorado Association of School Boards, said the ruling does mark a rejection of the “de minimis” standard, but it also rejected a standard offered by the parents. Instead, it set forth a path that “is not a radical alteration of the Rowley standard and will not disrupt the significant body of case law that has developed,” she says in a statement.

In practice, educators and teachers keep the idea of meaningful progress in mind during IEP meetings, she said.

The Council of the Great City Schools, which represents urban districts, filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting the school district in this case. John W. Borkowski, who led the legal team that drafted the brief, said in an interview that the standard set forth in this case was “workable.”

“The court was quite careful, I think, to repeat its caution that courts shouldn’t second-guess the professional judgment of educators. I think that sort of deference is important,” he said. “I think it’s important the court suggested that there’s not any guaranteed outcome for any student.”

Educators who are looking for a bright-line standard to tell them what to do will not find that in this ruling, and that’s intentional, the decision states. “The adequacy of a given IEP turns on the unique circumstances of the child for whom it was created,” Roberts wrote in the opinion.

Most school districts and teachers are already trying to do the right thing for students, said Ed Bosso, the superintendent and executive director of educational programs at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Mass.

But “a unanimous decision by the Supreme Court that is perceived as taking the bar of IDEA and raising it a little bit is a win,” he said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 05, 2017 edition of Education Week


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