Public Schools Must Raise Standards for Disabled Students, SCOTUS Rules

Published April 25, 2017

In the suit, the family alleged the child wasn’t receiving a quality education at his local public school.

Endrew F.’s parents sued the Douglas, Colorado County School District in 2010, alleging the public school their son Endrew, who was diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism and had received an individualized education plan (IEP), attended was not providing him an adequate education.

Endrew’s parents transferred him to a private school, where he made better progress, they said. Endrew’s parents sued the district to reimburse them for the tuition for Endrew’s new school.

The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision, issued in March, overruled the U.S. 10th Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling against Endrew’s family in 2015.

“The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA, guarantees a ‘free appropriate public education’ to all students with disabilities,” the Highlands Ranch Herald reported in March. “The court decision expands the definition of what ‘appropriate’ means.”

“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 in the Court’s Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District opinion. “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.'”

‘Very Little Concrete Guidance’

Tim Keller, managing attorney of the Arizona office for the Institute for Justice, says the Court’s decision is open to interpretation.

“The decision provides very little concrete guidance to either public school districts, IEP teams, or lower courts,” Keller said.

Nancy Reder, deputy state director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, says she is glad the Court didn’t go further in defining guidelines for schools.

“We did not want the Supreme Court to define a standard, and they did not do that,” said Reder.

“The first word [in IEP] is ‘individualized,'” Reder said. “Even if [students] have the same label, their needs are different.”

Although the Court did not define an “appropriate” education under IDEA, it made it clear a de minimis standard is less than what the law requires, says Keller.

“The Court correctly rejected the notion that, under IDEA, school districts need only provide educational benefits to children with disabilities that are barely a step above babysitting,” Keller said.

Says School Choice Is the Answer

Increasing parents’ choices of where to send their children to school in the first place is a much simpler solution, Keller says.

“The best way to truly protect the rights of students with disabilities is to empower them with educational choice,” Keller said.

Keller says choice programs give parents a direct solution “without any adversarial processes.”

Harry Painter ([email protected]) writes from Brooklyn, New York.