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US Supreme Court hears special education case

On Wednesday, January 10, 2017, the US Supreme Court took up the case of Endrew F. v. Douglas County (Colorado) School District. At issue in the case is, “What level of service satisfies IDEA, other education law, and legal precedent?”

A text transcript of the arguments put before the court is available from the website of the US Supreme Court.

Endrew F. has autism.  During his fourth grade year in the Douglas County School District, his academic achievement was slipping, and his behaviors became more and more detrimental to his educational progress.  The family and the district went through many of the typical hoops that families and districts are familiar with in writing (and re-writing) an IEP for Endrew.  Endrew’s family were not satisfied that he was receiving appropriate services under IDEA, and eventually took the step of withdrawing him from Douglas County and enrolling him, at their own expense, in a private school.  The family then sued the district for the cost of the private program, stating that the school failed to provide an adequate system of academic and behavioral support for Endrew.  The district countered that they met all the legal requirements and that Endrew was making enough progress to show that the district was in fact providing an adequate education.

In the last step before the US Supreme Court, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals decided in favor of the school district, stating that if there was any educational benefit at all in what the school provided, they had met their legal obligation.

Here are my thoughts after reading through the transcript and doing some background research:

  1. Words are unfathomably important.  Words like “appropriate”, “significant”, “meaningful”, and “some” come up a lot in these arguments, and in the previous case law.  Each of them is designed to give the due process system its place in examining what is reasonable in a particular circumstance.  This fuzziness may be frustrating in some instances, but it is the very thing that allows individuals the freedom to pursue what is best for a particular child and not be shackled to a particular strategy by a statute.
  2. In reading some parts of the transcript, some of the statements made by the attorneys and the justices seemed to indicate that they have a belief that some kids cannot be expected to achieve grade-level content because they have a disability.  At times, it felt like there was a presumption that “performing at grade level” is the equivalent of “performing at the same level as everyone else”.  This is untrue on its face, and I believe any classroom educator could tell you so.  However, these were not classroom educators in the courtroom (except for one Stanford University law professor).  If this case revolved around a student who was being denied a level of service due to their gender or race, I have little doubt that the arguments put forth by the attorney for the school district would be labeled as horrifically bigoted.  But, because this was a child with autism, it felt at times that there was an inherent acceptance that this child could not possibly be expected to achieve at an academic level expected of every other fourth grader.  Sad.
  3. I’m sure I have a deeper interest in this subject than some, due to the fact that I currently have a kindergartner who has been diagnosed with Autism.  This case could significantly influence the educational environment she finds herself in for the rest of her school life.  To that end, I want better for her than to have to learn in a school district that stands on “we did what we had to do by law, and that’s enough”.

I’m no scholar on the US Supreme Court, but the tone and direction of the questions and discussion as delivered in the transcript gives me good reason to think that the US Supreme Court will rule that there is a responsibility on the part of public schools to provide more than just a “little better than nothing” (or, as the Court puts it, “barely more than de minimis“) education.

The latest reauthorization of  ESEA is titled the “Every Student Succeeds Act”.  The US Supreme Court is about to rule whether we really mean “every student.”

 

 

 

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