In a unanimous ruling with major implications for special education, the U.S. Supreme Court said that public schools must provide students with disabilities more than a minimal benefit.
The decision issued Wednesday comes in a case known as Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, which pitted the parents of a Colorado boy with autism against their school district.
After Endrew F. made little progress attending public school, his parents placed him at a private school and sought reimbursement. However, a lower court rejected their claim saying that reimbursement was unwarranted since the boy received “some” educational benefit.
In reversing that ruling this week, the Supreme Court affirmed a higher standard for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandate that students with disabilities be provided a free appropriate public education.
“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,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the opinion. “The IDEA demands more.”
FAPE typically means offering “a level of instruction reasonably calculated to permit advancement through the general curriculum,” the court indicated.
However, for students who are not fully integrated in general education classrooms, Roberts wrote that individualized education programs do not need to aim for grade-level advancement, but “must be appropriately ambitious in light of (a student’s) circumstances, just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most children in the regular classroom.”
“The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives,” reads the opinion.
The ruling does not go as far as the family of Endrew F. hoped. They argued that FAPE should ensure children with disabilities an education that allows them opportunities that are “substantially equal” to that of typically-developing kids. But the court determined that such a high bar would be “entirely unworkable.”
Nonetheless, disability advocates hailed the ruling as a victory.
“We expect this unanimous decision to be transformative in the lives of student with disabilities,” said Denise Marshall, executive director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates. “Today the (Supreme Court) affirmed what we know to be the promise of the IDEA.”
The ruling comes in the midst of Senate hearings to confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch to a seat on the Supreme Court. Gorsuch had previously ruled on a similar case and had supported the lower standard that was rejected by the high court’s ruling.