The Supreme Court Takes on Special Education

Elliott Gluck is a first year law student at the University of Michigan. He currently serves as a board member for the Student Rights Project. Elliott can be reached at egluck@umich.edu.

Last week, in a unanimous 8-0 vote, the Supreme Court ruled in what one lawyer deemed as “the most monumental IDEA case decided by the high court in over 30 years.” The case of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District focused on Endrew F., a student formerly enrolled in the Douglas County School District in Colorado and his parents efforts to get him the education they believed was promised under IDEA, the federal education law governing special education. Endrew was enrolled in the Douglas County schools from preschool through the 4th grade; however, his parents were dissatisfied when his progress stalled yet his individualized education program (IEP) remained ultimately the same from year to year.

Under IDEA, students with special education needs are guaranteed a free and appropriate education (FAPE) which aims to keep students in the classroom and progressing through school. After moving Endrew to a private school where he quickly began to excel, his parents filed suit against the school district arguing that the district failed to provide Endrew with the requisite FAPE. Unfortunately for Endrew and his parents, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals interpreted an IEP to grant only an “educational benefit that is merely more than de minimus.”

Writing for the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts overruled the 10th Circuit’s decision, insisting that IDEA must guarantee something more. Chief Justice Roberts writes,

“But whatever else can be said about it, this standard is markedly more demanding than the ‘merely more than de minimus’ test applied by the Tenth Circuit. It cannot be the case that the Act typically aims for grade-level advancement for children with disabilities who can be educated in the regular classroom, but is satisfied with barely more than de minimus progress for those who cannot. When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing ‘merely more than de minimus’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all.”

While the court did not issue a rule on what appropriate progress means, its decision is a clear victory for students like Endrew and their families.

Although many schools already work with teachers and families to ensure that students have the appropriate IEP that will help them reach lofty goals in the classroom, advocates and parents across the country are applauding the decision. Amanda Morin who is the parent of two students with IEP’s and a contributor for Understood.org reacted to the decision saying, “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.” One Maryland parent went as far as to deem the decision “epic”. Finally, Mimi Corcoran, president and CEO of the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD), stated, “Today is a good day for children with disabilities. The Court … soundly rejected the belief that just some small benefit is enough.”

The Students Rights Project (SRP) is all too familiar with the difficulties students with special education needs struggle with in and out of school. Although not the norm, IEP’s can be inaccurate or under-ambitious, like in Endrew’s case, leaving students without the resources they need to thrive. This lack of appropriate resources is just one contributing factor in the overrepresentation of students with special education needs in suspension and expulsion statistics. Fortunately, SRP recently held an advocate training to ensure that students at the University of Michigan who are trained to work with students and families coming into contact with the school disciplinary system have a comprehensive understanding of the requirements under IDEA and the protections an IEP guarantees. The training combined with the recent decision from Justice Roberts and the Court will go a long way in keeping students in Southeast Michigan in the classroom where they belong.

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