How a New Supreme Court Ruling Could Affect Special Education

Advocates for students with disabilities argue the decision could help millions of children.

Lynne Sladky / AP

In a stunning 8-0 decision in the case Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a higher standard of education for children with disabilities. Advocates and parents say the case dramatically expands the rights of special-education students in the United States, creates a nationwide standard for special education, and empowers parents as they advocate for their children in schools. But critics say the decision will not have any impact on schools, arguing that the vast majority already provide a good education for those kids.

As I explained in January, the parents of Endrew F. removed him from his local public school, where he made little progress, and placed him in a private school, where they said he made “significant” academic and social improvement.

In 2012, Drew’s parents filed a complaint with the Colorado Department of Education to recover the cost of tuition at the school, which is now about $70,000 per year. The lower courts ruled on behalf of the school district on the grounds that the intent of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is to ensure handicapped kids have access to public education—not to guarantee any particular level of education once inside. But the parents appealed, with the case eventually landing at the Supreme Court.

The case revolved around a central question: Must schools provide a meaningful education in which children show significant progress and are given substantially equal opportunities as  typical children, or can they provide an education that results in just some improvement?

On Wednesday, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. stated in the court opinion that a child’s “educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances” and that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”

“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 wrote. “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.” ’ ”

As the opinion was handed down, President Donald Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court, Judge Neil Gorsuch, was at the Senate for his confirmation hearings. The Senate committee handling the confirmation asked Judge Gorsuch why he ruled in similar cases in the lower courts that an education agency need only provide educational benefits for the child in question that are “merely ... more than de minimis.” Gorsuch told the committee that his decision in those cases was bound by circuit precedent.

Advocates for children with disabilities say this case will help millions of students. For the 2013-14 school year, 6.5 million studentsor 13 percent of the public-school population—received an Individual Education Plan (IEP). The court’s decision increases the education expectations for children with disabilities and requires schools to consider each child’s individual strengths and weaknesses when writing an IEP; schools can no longer provide a “one-size-fits-all” IEP, Gary Mayerson, a civil-rights lawyer in New York City and a board member of Autism Speaks, explained in an interview. “Clearly this is the most monumental IDEA case decided by the high court in over 30 years,” he said.

“The time of the decision couldn’t be better,” Mayerson said. “IEP season is underway in full force. Every school will now have the opportunity and time to comply with the new standard of care.” The impact of this case will be felt by students immediately.

As a long-time advocate for children with special needs, Mayerson is very pleased by this decision. “We have been fighting and advocating for these standards for years,” he said. “It is gratifying that the court understands disabilities today better than they did 30 years ago. It is heartening to see the decision be unanimous, particularly in these partisan times.”

Mimi Corcoran, the president of the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), agrees. “Today is a good day for children with disabilities. NCLD applauds this decision and will work with parents and educators to make it a reality,” she said in a statement.

“I’m excited about this decision,” Lindsay Jones, a vice president with the NCLD said. “The impact will be positive.” Jones said that the decision was thoughtful, and acknowledged that most special-education students attend regular public schools and aren’t in private settings. “The court clearly states that special-education children shouldn’t just be in the room. They must advance appropriately,” she said.

Parents of special-needs children are ecstatic about this decision, according to Amanda Morin, a parent of two children with IEPs and a contributor for the parent website Morin said, “I’m thrilled, because I think it really empowers parents to feel confident when they go in the door [of an IEP meeting]. They can say that the law says that this program must be tailored so my child makes progress.”

A number of education groups, including The Council of the Great City Schools, the School Superintendents Association (AASA), and the National School Boards Association, supported the Douglas County School District in this case, however, saying that the standard for special education did not require change, because the system was already working for kids.

Despite the ASSA’s opposition to the case, Sasha Pudelski, a lobbyist for the professional association, said that the decision will not have a big impact on district practices. The court decision was actually quite moderate, she said. The court rejected the plaintiff’s argument that a special-education student should have a “substantially equal” standard of education as those of typical children. Instead, the justices focused on the idea that children with disabilities should receive an education that shows progress in light of their disabilities. Pudelski said that schools are already doing that. “It is not going to be groundbreaking for districts,” she said. “It’s a flexible standard that defers to the expertise of the schools.”

While Pudelski does not foresee this decision leading to significant change at the local level, she noted that the escalating costs of educating children with disabilities puts a lot of pressure on schools, especially given past and proposed cuts to education funding. If this decision does, in fact, lead to additional, expensive services, she said, “it would be a recipe for disaster.”

How this decision will play out on the school level, given the rising costs of special education and diminishing support from the federal government, is anyone’s guess. But, for now, those concerns are not dampening the celebrations of parents and special-needs advocates this week.