The Supreme Court recently raised the standards for educational benefits given to the (approximately) six million students with disabilities. The unanimous decision rejected the ruling of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals which found that non-trivial progress was sufficient to satisfy requirements under the Individuals with Disabilities in Education (IDEA) Act, a law passed in 1975 to help states fund educational programs for students with disabilities. The high court’s ruling also refuted a similar decision upheld by Supreme Court Justice Nominee, Neil Gorsuch, a fact that loomed large during his confirmation hearings. It should be noted that he was not on the panel that gave the ruling recently overturned by the Supreme Court.
The decision in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District revolved around the predicament of a student who, having been diagnosed with autism, was enrolled in a public school with an “individualized education program” (IEP). Dissuaded by Endrew’s lack of progress in the IEP, his parents enrolled him in a private school where he showed significant improvement. Endrew’s parents then sought reimbursement from the public school for the tuition at Endrew’s new program. One by one, the lower courts rejected the parents’ claims.
The 10th Circuit agreed with the initial decisions, saying that, according to IDEA, IEPs only need to provide for “merely more than minimis” benefits – a claim that Gorsuch upheld in a similar circumstance – and thus, under this criterion, the public school provided Endrew with adequate assistance.
Contrary the lower court’s decision, the Supreme Court sent the case back to the 10th Circuit, requiring that court to apply a higher standard for educational benefits given to students with disabilities. According to the opinion, written by Chief Justice John Roberts, an IEP ought to offer benefits that “enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” He continued, “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.” With regard to the “merely more than minimis” standard, Roberts suggested that it would barely provide “an education at all” to children with disabilities. He added, it would be tantamount to allowing students to “’[sit] idly . . . awaiting the time when they were old enough to “drop out.”’”
A Minor Victory, but a Victory Nonetheless
As Amy Howe pointed out, though many advocates view this as a major triumph, last week’s ruling did not give Endrew and his parents everything they wanted. Supreme Court Justices may have raised the standard for benefits offered to students with disabilities but not to the extent the petitioners hoped for. Endrew and his family sought a strict standard that would provide disabled students the necessary tools to “attain self-sufficiency” and “achieve academic success.”
However, according to Gary Mayerson, a board member of the advocacy organization Autism Speaks, this ruling comes at the perfect time, as many school districts design their IEPs during the spring. Moreover, as Fisher Phillips noted on lexology.com, “schools will be required to provide enhanced services not only designed to provide some benefit, but that are reasonably calculated to keep track with grade progress.“
Amanda Morin, a parent of two children with IEPs and a contributor for the parent website Understood.org, observed that the court’s decision “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.”
Finally, in a time when the Department of Education stands to lose 13.5 percent of its funding, a decision like this offers much needed hope.