The current eight-member Supreme Court has handed down a unanimous decision in the case of Endrew F. v Douglas County (Colorado) School District. The decision vacated the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals’ ruling. The Tenth Circuit had decided in favor of the school district, ruling that “the child received some educational benefit while in the District’s care and that is enough to satisfy the District’s obligation to provide a free appropriate public education.”
As the case was argued before the Supreme Court, that standard of “some educational benefit” was a central issue. Had the district in fact done enough to provide Endrew the legally-mandated free and appropriate public education (FAPE)? If not, the parents would be able to recoup the cost of tuition for the private school Endrew began attending.
The Supreme Court’s opinion establishes that merely providing “some educational benefit” for a student does not meet the district’s obligation under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
- How on earth did every lower court rule in favor of the school district? This fact shows me that we still face a great number of people, in and out of the education world, who believe “every kid deserves a good education… well, but not THOSE kids. They can’t handle it.”
- Even in ruling for the student in this case, the Court left plenty of indication that it’s perfectly acceptable to settle for a lesser level of achievement for students who have a disability solely on that basis. This is flat wrong. If the student’s label were one of race, religion, or socio-economic status, there would be outrage about low expectations for the student. Presence of a disability should be no different.
- In its opinion, the Court holds that “[t]o meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” That last phrase will be taken as permission to greatly reduce expectations for students with disabilities, but doing so violates the first part of the statement. Defining “appropriate” progress is the core of any IEP meeting for any student with a disability. But, wholly discarding the state’s regular academic standards is not required for developing an IEP. In fact, the IEP should outline the steps that will be taken to permit the student to reach those standards, not what the student will do instead of them.
- Even the NEA filed an amicus brief in support of the student, against the district. Bravo, NEA. In a case where many typically-vocal proponents of high-quality public education have remained strangely silent, the NEA stood for the student over the system. I appreciate the political volatility of speaking up in this case (either speaking against a public school district, or speaking in favor of low academic expectations), but silence cannot improve this struggle.
- The Supreme Court’s opinion in Rowley was that students with disabilities must be offered educational opportunities that are “substantially equal to the opportunities afforded children without disabilities,” and that standard has not been changed.
The conclusion of the opinion of the Court states, “At that point, a reviewing court may fairly expect those authorities to be able to offer a cogent and responsive explanation for their decisions that shows the IEP is reasonably calculated to enable the child to make progress appropriate in light of his circumstances.” And because the Court didn’t (and shouldn’t) define appropriate progress, it is imperative that every parent and every educator strongly advocate for appropriate progress towards the same standard every student is expected to achieve, and not a barely-more-than-minimum substitute.