By Rashida Gordon, Staff Writer, 2L
On January 11, 2017, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. Parents and advocates believe it to be one of the most important special education cases to have been decided in decades. In Endrew, the Court was asked to decide what level of educational benefit schools are required to provide to children with disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). For years, a public school was only required to provide ‘merely more than de minimis’ benefits” to a student with disabilities. But, on March 22, in an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, the Court rejected the idea that a student is only entitled to a minimal education and sent the case back to the lower court for it to apply a tougher standard.
IDEA was enacted by Congress in 1990 and requires schools which receive federal funding to provide Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to all children with disabilities. An important part of FAPE is the individualized education program (IEP) which requires that a public school must design an education plan that is tailored to the unique needs of each child as set forth in Board of Ed. of Hendrick Hudson Central School Dist., Westchester Cty. v. Rowley, 458 U. S. 176. IDEA has its roots in the landmark civil rights case Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 which held that the segregation of black and white students in public schools was unconstitutional because “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The decision from Brown began a series of legal discussions on the obligation of public schools to provide equal opportunity for disadvantaged students specifically those with disabilities. Twenty years later in 1975, Congress passed The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) which later became IDEA.
According to a January, 2000 report by The National Council on Disability, “the EHA provided access to 1 million children who had been locked out of the public school system due to laws that allowed states to discriminate against children who were blind, deaf, emotionally disturbed or mentally retarded at a time when only 1 out of 5 children with disabilities was receiving a public school education.”
Drew was diagnosed with autism at age two and attended K-4th grade in Colorado’s Douglas County School District. Drew participated in yearly IEPs however when he entered 4th grade and his parents noticed a decline in his behavior in addition to noting that minimal progress had been made as well as the goals and objectives of his IEP being repetitive. Drew’s parents pulled him out of public school, enrolled him at Firefly Autism Academy, and requested reimbursement from the school district for the private school tuition which was upwards of $70,000. The school district denied their request stating that the previous IEPs provided were sufficient enough for Drew to make minimal progress. The school district cited Rowley that an IEP need not promise any particular level of benefit so long as it is reasonably calculated to provide some benefit. The 10th Circuit Court also ruled against the parents, citing longstanding case law that “an IEP is adequate as long as it is intended to provide ‘merely more than de minimis’ benefits.”
On March 22, 2017 in a surprising 8-0 unanimous vote, the Supreme Court held that “a school must offer an Individualized Education Program (IEP) reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstance” overturning the ruling of the lower 10th Circuit Court. Advocates and parents say that the ruling dramatically expands the rights of special-education students in the United States, creates a nationwide standard for special education rather than leaving it up to each school, and empowers parents as they advocate for their children in schools.
I applaud the Justices, as I found the School District’s position to be quite problematic in using a one-size fits all minimal approach to creating IEP’s. The Court’s ruling also contradicts one made by newly confirmed Supreme Court Justice and Trump nominee, Neal Gorsuch. In 2008, Gorsuch ruled against the family of an autistic child, in Luke P. v. Thompson R2-J School District, explaining that the IDEA requires educational benefits that are “merely … ‘more than de minimis.’” It will be interesting to see his opinions on any similar future cases. Prior to his confirmation hearing parents and advocates were upset over statements made by another Trump nominee, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos during her confirmation hearing. At one point Devos seemed to agree that states should be able to decide whether to enforce IDEA, but later, reversed course saying she had been “confused”.