Chief Justice John Roberts  

Chief Justice John Roberts

 

Parents of students with disabilities may be rethinking their child’s educational plan after the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in the case of a child with autism and attention deficit disorder whose parents took him out of public school.   

At issue in the case was the level of educational benefit that public schools must provide to students under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  The Act guarantees children with disabilities a “free appropriate public education,” but the level of progress a student must make in order for the education to be called “appropriate” has been unclear, leading to school districts across the country interpreting the meaning differently.

The case revolved around Colorado parents who took their son, Endrew, out of public school in fifth grade because they felt he was not progressing adequately under the individualized education plan (IEP) provided by the school district.  The parents enrolled Endrew in private school, where he made better progress. They then sued the school district to pay the cost of his private school.

The school district refused to pay, contending that as long as Endrew was making some progress in the public school, his IEP was sufficient.  Endrew’s parents appealed the school district’s decision, arguing that the district should provide a substantial and meaningful, not minimal, educational benefit to a child with a disability.  Jeffrey Fisher, attorney for Endrew, said that IDEA requires schools to provide an “equal educational opportunity” for children with disabilities, or an “equally challenging curriculum on the academic side” to meet their functional and developmental goals.

The parents lost at every level of appeal, with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit – the final level before the U.S. Supreme Court — ruling that instruction and services furnished to children with disabilities need only confer “some educational benefit.”

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the parents’ final appeal, and on March 22, 2017, in an 8-0 ruling. it overturned the lower court and ruled in the parents’ favor.

“When all is said and done,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the Court, “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.”  The IDEA demands more of schools, Roberts said. “It requires an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

Many people had hoped that the case would settle once and for all the level of educational benefit required by the IDEA, but the Court declined to do this.  While ruling that minimal educational progress is not sufficient, the High Court stopped short of clearly defining what an “appropriate” education under IDEA really means.  “We will not attempt to elaborate on what ‘appropriate’ progress will look like from case to case,” Roberts wrote.

To read the Court’s ruling, click here.

For Special Needs Answers’ earlier coverage of the case, click here.

For an analysis of the ruling by the website JDSupra, click here.