In a landmark decision, the U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday better defined the federal standard public schools must meet for its special education students.
Students with learning disabilities are due “appropriately ambitious” education plans that ensure they will advance through public schools similarly to other students, a unanimous court said.
The court’s decision stems from a lawsuit filed by a suburban Denver family who enrolled their son, known as Endrew F. in court documents, in a private school after they felt the Douglas County School District failed their son, who was diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder.
The family sued the district seeking reimbursement for the private school’s tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
The school district argued it met the minimum standard in the federal law that defines the rights of special education students.
While the state education department and lower courts agreed with the school district, Chief Justice John Roberts, who wrote the court’s opinion, did not.
“When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing merely more than ‘de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all,” Roberts wrote.
Federal law, he continued, “requires an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”
The decision stops short of defining what progress should look like. Instead, that should depend on each student, the court said.
In a statement, the Douglas County School District said it was confident the district was already meeting the higher standard and would prove so when a lower court takes up the Endrew F. case again.
“The Court did not hold that Douglas County School District failed to meet the new standard, or say that DCSD can’t proceed to prove that it met that standard,” said Douglas County School District Legal Counsel William Trachman in a statement. “Indeed, in this case, the Douglas County School District offered an appropriate Individualized Education Plan and we look forward to proving to the lower courts that the IEP meets the new, higher standard.”
The Colorado Department of Education also released a statement:
“The Colorado Department of Education is firmly committed to providing quality educational opportunities to students with disabilities. We are pleased to see the that the Supreme Court’s decision seems to give greater clarity by saying an Individualized Education Program must be ‘reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.’ We also appreciate the Court’s reminder that courts must defer to the expertise and judgment of school officials.”
The department will not take a position when the Tenth Circuit Court retries the case in light of the Supreme Court’s clarification of the legal standard.