How a New Supreme Court Ruling Could Affect Special Education

In a stunning 8-0 decision in the case Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a higher standard of education for children with disabilities. Advocates and parents say the case dramatically expands the rights of special-education students in the United States, creates a nationwide standard for special education, and empowers parents as they advocate for their children in schools. But critics say the decision will not have any impact on schools, arguing that the vast majority already provide a good education for those kids.

As I explained in January, the parents of Endrew F. removed him from his local public school, where he made little progress, and placed him in a private school, where they said he made “significant” academic and social improvement.

In 2012, Drew’s parents filed a complaint with the Colorado Department of Education to recover the cost of tuition at the school, which is now about $70,000 per year. The lower courts ruled on behalf of the school district on the grounds that the intent of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is to ensure handicapped kids have access to public education—not to guarantee any particular level of education once inside. But the parents appealed, with the case eventually landing at the Supreme Court.

More here.

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7 thoughts on “How a New Supreme Court Ruling Could Affect Special Education

  1. I’m catching up on the news. Good article. I’m wonder about the costs. Is there any indication that costs would drop (on a per student basis) if reasonable placement for kids with disabilities became the norm? That is, if you’re only getting the kids whose parents are willing and able to either advance $70,000 or lobby a school board, you are only serving a fraction of the population at need and I’m wondering if, even with high levels of individual attention, it would be more efficient once you get a larger number of kids in.

  2. Maybe. 15% of every school district has kids with identified special needs. Now, that’s a large and diverse group. It includes kids with intellectual, emotional, social, academic, and/or behavior problems. You can’t serve a kid with Downs Syndrome the same way that you serve a kid with Asperger’s Syndrome. Schools would like to put all those kids in the same room and give them the same instruction, but it’s really not possible.

    Some kids can do just fine in a local, public school if the program is tweaked and tailored for them and the teachers have suitable training. But others, like the boy who was at the center of this case, really need a special school. The most efficient way to serve those kids is with large, regional public schools. Our county has a magnet high school for gifted and talented kids, which is extremely good. I know a few kids who have been through that program and they’re all going to ivy league schools next year. The county should be able to do the same thing with special ed kids, but they haven’t yet.

    It’s probably a political issue. Not enough parents are demanding quality, magnet public schools for special ed kids. It’s really hard to organize parents. Everybody has their own interests and needs.

    I don’t anticipate major changes. It will make it easier for the pushy, wealthy parents to get services for their kids, but everybody else will be status quo.

    1. Large, regional schools were what I was thinking of. Large enough to have small groups of kids with similar needs even for kids with uncommon sets of needs.

      1. Right. Large, regional schools are totally the best type of system for the oddball kids. They would be more efficient and effective than small, local schools, but they don’t exist yet, because it would require a big chunk of money upfront to create those schools.

  3. My take is that reading this decision and the Gorsuch decision (in the other similar case) is that the Supreme Court in this case keeps us from going backwards. I do think the minimal standard would have made the IDEA law a meaningless standard, for children who are not integrated in the regular classroom. But, I don’t see major changes in interpretation going forwards. Schools will have to argue that their plans are designed to provide “reasonable calculated to provide appropriate progress, given the child’s circumstances.” The court has declined to define what the appropriate standard is, but *has* said that declined to say that it is to give “substantially equal opportunities” or to reach a particular standard (say, to prepare the child for independent living, or to generalize the skills to other situations).

    There’s a good summary of out of district placement in Massachusets, http://www.doe.mass.edu/sped/hehir/2013-10OutofDistrict.pdf, that describes some of what Laura has mentioned, including the role of socioeconomics in access to placement. The summary does state that the majority of out of district placements are a “consensus” decision, that is not a conflict, like those described in the court cases.

    1. I think the “consensus” was often only found because the school districts assumed they would lose in court if they did what Gorsuch thought was sufficient.

      1. I do agree that the districts weren’t, in general, comfortable with the application of the de minimus standard (and, I feel like there might have been a circuit conflict, which would have meant that the situation would be different in MA than CO, anyway). But, I also think that the consensus might reflect real consensus in many of those cases: medically complicated children with significant needs. The MA report goes on to say that there is more conflict between family and school in the placement of children with learning disabilities and that autism is one of the growing areas.

        I don’t want to underplay the importance of the decision, because the difference between “de minimus” and “appropriate given the child’s individual circumstances” Is huge.

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