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Supreme Court Rules Unanimously to Fortify the Rights of Students with Disabilities

The Supreme Court ruled that school districts must provide special education students with appropriate services and instruction that would allow them the opportunity to make meaningful progress. In its 8-0 decision in the Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District case, the Supreme Court ruled that schools must provide education programs to students with disabilities that exceed the "merely more than de minimis" standard. Chief Justice John G. Roberts wrote in the court's opinion that programs for special education students "must be appropriately ambitious...just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most children in the regular classroom."

"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,'" wrote Chief Justice Roberts. "When all is said and done, a student offered an education program providing a ‘merely more than de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all."

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was enacted to ensure that students with disabilities would be provided with "free appropriate public education." However, school districts across the country have reached different interpretations as to what exactly constitutes "appropriate" education for students with disabilities. With this ruling, districts that adopted the "de minimis" standard will now be required to provide eligible students with more in-depth and individualized education offerings.

Jack Robinson, the attorney for the plaintiff, called the court's decision a "game-changer," according to The 74. “It’s going to shift a fair amount of leverage to parents, that they now have some sort of substantive rights under the IDEA, which in most of the circuits they really didn’t have before.”  

In addition to rejecting the minimal progress standard, the court also rejected the notion of adopting an "equal opportunity" standard which would have been "entirely unworkable, apt to require 'impossible measurements and comparisons' that courts were ill suited to make." Although the court did not provide a definitive standard, the justices did offer districts, like Douglas County, some parameters for reformulation. However, these districts will invariably incur additional costs as they scramble to make their special education programs compliant with a more rigorous set of criteria.

The Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District involved an autistic student and his family, who believed that he was not achieving the appropriate academic progress. In their words, his "functional progress" was "stalled." This forced them to take him out of the public school he attended and enroll him into the Firefly Autism House, which specialized in autistic student needs. 

It has now sparked a monumental Supreme Court decision where the real winners are students across the nation who have disabilities, and the parents who want the absolute best education for them.

 

Article by Navindra Persaud, Education World Contributor and Richard Conklin, Education World Editor.

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