Families of students with special needs won an important legal battle when the Supreme Court sided with the parents of an autistic boy who argued that their school district had failed to provide their son a “free and appropriate education.”
The family sued the Douglas County School District for private school tuition after their son, known as “Drew,” made better progress in a private school than he had in a district public school. His parents said Drew hadn’t been learning adequately because the public school’s individualized education program (IEP) was not ambitious enough.
The Justices agreed. In the Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District decision, they concluded that “appropriate” education for children with special needs requires more than meeting the minimum standard agreed to by the lower court and that the goal should be for such students to make progress in each grade.
“It cannot be right that the [Individuals With Disabilities Education Act] generally contemplates grade-level advancement for children with disabilities who are fully integrated in the regular classroom, but is satisfied with barely more than de minimis progress for children who are not,” wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in the March 22 decision. “The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives,” Roberts wrote.
Disability rights groups lauded the decision, expecting it to improve education for students whose IEPs have fallen short.
“An 8-0 decision clearly rejecting the very low standard set by the lower courts in this case should send a strong message to courts and school districts around the country that the day of low expectations for students with disabilities is over,” said Curt Decker, executive director of the National Disability Rights Network in a statement.
For parents like Hannah Grieco, the decision was a huge relief. Grieco taught full-time before her oldest son was born, but her son’s disabilities mean she now stays home with him and teaches part-time. He has both a developmental and an emotional disability. He is also gifted, with an IQ close to 160.
“I am constantly being told that my child’s needs are significant. And thus, we should basically be ‘grateful’ for what he receives,” she said in an email. “I am a teacher, and I know how challenging it is to address strong behaviors. But my son learns and grows from his experiences with the general population. We shouldn’t have to be ‘grateful’ that he is even taught at all.”
The ruling is expected to impact only a small number of students with special needs because most public school districts already meet a high standard. “Public school educators across the nation have regularly set high expectations for and provided meaningful educational benefits to students with disabilities,” the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) said in its amicus brief.
Nancy Reder, deputy executive director of NASDSE, said in schools where students with special educational needs are already making adequate progress, not much ought to change. High standards are the norm for all students, including those with special needs, she said. “And if they aren’t, they should be,” she added.
The court also emphasized individualizing each student’s goals, Reder noted. Rather than standardizing IEPs, which would be contrary to the individualized nature of the program, educators should focus on helping individual students make progress appropriate to their circumstances.
“A focus on the particular child is at the core of the IDEA,” Chief Justice Roberts wrote.