Supreme Court Increases School Standards For Students With Disabilities

Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court John Roberts

Justices ruled for the parents of Endrew F., a Colorado boy with autism who pulled their son from the public school after his progress "essentially stalled".

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday issued a major decision expanding the scope of students' special education rights, ruling unanimously that schools must do more than provide a "merely more than de minimis" education program to a student with a disability. They then sued the school district for reimbursement, alleging a violation of the federal law which promises a "free appropriate public education" to children disabilities.

Though defining an "appropriate" education and a sufficient IEP is hard, as each student's needs are different, today's SCOTUS ruling reaffirmed the National Association of State Directors of Special Education's statement that "a standard more meaningful than just-above-trivial is the norm today", and sent a message that schools need to provide IEPs developed to help a student progress from grade to grade in pace with the nondisabled students, according to Think Progress. The unanimous court decried the Gorsuch standard as one that would consign "children with disabilities" to an educational program that "can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all".

"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, '" he added, quoting from key 1982 Supreme Court precedent on special education, Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley, that also dealt with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of IL said the high court had just tossed out a standard that Gorsuch himself had used in a similar case that lowered the bar for educational achievement. Lower courts said even programs with minimal benefits can satisfy the law. The decision is likely to require a rethinking of the benefits to disabled students provided by public school districts across the country, and is expected to lead to increased litigation challenging the provision of disability benefits provided by those schools (Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District). Educational plans for them, he said, must still be "appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances".

As a result of the decision, Bossing said, "we'll see schools start to think more carefully about how they can support students with disabilities and how they can make progress and achieve proficiency, and we'll see courts who are reviewing disputes between parents and schools understand that this is a higher standard".

NEA urged the court to adopt exactly that approach in its amicus brief in the Endrew case.

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Drew's parents were not satisfied with the IEP the Douglas County School District developed for Drew at the beginning of his fifth grade year.

Later, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, addressed the issue with friendly questions to Gorsuch about whether he felt bound by 10th Circuit precedent in the Thompson case.

"Of course this describes a general standard, not a formula", Roberts said".

Gorsuch's opinions in eight out of 10 cases involving students of disabilities all tended toward limiting the responsibilities of school districts - for example, if they leave school of their own accord out of frustration.

In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that the school did not violate the law based on the low standard set by longstanding judicial precedent.