Can the Courts Help Kids? Revisiting the Supreme Court Case, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District

From the newsletter:

When individuals and groups can’t make schools work for them, some turn to the courts for help at the local level, state level, and occasionally in the Supreme Court. With so much attention from parents and advocacy groups on school equity and outcomes right now, it’s worth thinking about how the courts have solved (or not solved) educational inequities in the past. 

In 2017, I covered a seminal court case for special education for The Atlantic: Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. The case revolved around a central question: Must schools provide a meaningful education in which children with disabilities show significant progress and are given substantially equal opportunities as typical children, or can they provide an education that results in just some improvement? 

I wrote two pieces on this topic in 2017; those articles are still being heavily cited in law review journals. Five years later, it’s worth wondering: did this court case make a difference? Can the courts force a bureaucracy to do the right thing? Can the courts force our nation to educate our children fairly and properly? I’m not sure.

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Is the Bar Too Low for Special Education?

In fourth grade, Drew’s behavioral problems in school grew worse. Gripped by extreme fears of flies, spills, and public restrooms, Drew began banging his head, removing his clothing, running out of the school building, and urinating on the floor. These behaviors, which stemmed from autism and ADHD, meant that Drew was regularly removed from the classroom in his suburban school outside of Denver and only made marginal academic improvement, according to court documents.

Alarmed by their son’s increasingly difficult behaviors, his parents placed him in a private school that specializes in autistic children like Drew. The new school controlled Drew’s behaviors using ABA therapy—a standard, but intensive, treatment for autistic children with behavioral problems that was not offered at his public school. Now age 17, Drew has made “significant” progress academically and socially at his new school.

In 2012, Drew’s parents filed a complaint with the Colorado Department of Education to recover the cost of tuition at this 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, and the case—Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District—is now under review of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The case revolves around a central question: Must schools provide a meaningful education in which the child shows significant progress and is substantially equal to typical children, or can they provide an education that results in just some improvement? If the Supreme Court rules on behalf of Drew and his family, agreeing that special education shall be held to a higher standard, then it will open up a thornier question: Who should pay for it? And that question could be even harder to navigate under President Donald Trump, whose pick for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, during her Senate confirmation hearing last week said she believes that the rights of special-education students should be decided by the states.

* * *

Drew’s case marks the next chapter in the evolution of special education in the United States. In 1975, Congress found that children with disabilities were “either totally excluded from schools or sitting idly in regular classrooms awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out.” That year, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act—which would, in 1990, become IDEA—and provided those children the right to to a “free, appropriate public education,” as well a customized process to achieve certain goals, called an Individual Education Plan (IEP).*For the 2013-14 school year, 6.5 million studentsor 13 percent of the public-school population—received an IEP.

Read the rest here.

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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.

The case revolved around a central question: Must schools provide a meaningful education in which children show significant progress and are given substantially equal opportunities as  typical children, or can they provide an education that results in just some improvement?

On Wednesday, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. stated in the court opinionthat a child’s “educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances” and that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”

“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. “For children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to ‘sitting idly . . . awaiting the time when they were old enough to “drop out.” ’ ”

Read the rest here

4 thoughts on “Can the Courts Help Kids? Revisiting the Supreme Court Case, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District

  1. These pieces and your continued sharing and advocacy has made me an advocate. Thanks for staying on these stories, over and over and as things develop.

    Like

    1. Yes, these stories make a difference in what I know and help me stay involved.

      I say it every time, but I suspect it can’t be said enough, but you are really talented and explaining these complex issues. And I am a tough critic who does not say things to make people feel good (as you would know if we interacted in real life).

      Like

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