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High Court boosts rights of learning-disabled students

23 March 2017

The case, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, was an appeal from two Colorado parents who want their school district to reimburse them for the cost of their autistic son's private school.

The IDEA requires any public school receiving federal funding to ensure all children receive a "free appropriate public education" (FAPE), and schools satisfy this requirement by developing and implementing IEPs for students with disabilities.

"Ask any parent, teacher, education support professional who has students with special needs and they would tell you these precious students need more resources, support and help - not less".

On Wednesday, Chief Justice John Roberts criticized that standard, saying it meant children would receive instruction that amounted to sitting idly, waiting to drop out. Democrats said that in eight out of 10 cases as a 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge, Gorsuch sided with school districts rather than disabled students in lawsuits filed under the law.

For a child who can not be "fully integrated in the regular classroom and not able to achieve on grade level", the Court acknowledged that, while "grade-level advancement" may not be the appropriate measuring stick for compliance, the child's "educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances".

Drew's parents were not satisfied with the IEP the Douglas County School District developed for Drew at the beginning of his fifth grade year.

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"But the district makes too much of them", Roberts said". He went on to make better progress in a private school.

The parents were seeking reimbursement of $70,000 for the child's tuition and related expenses at a private school. That request was denied by an Administrative Law Judge, but the case moved forward.

"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 Supreme Court decision. The achievement levels of students in special education are among the lowest in Alabama, on par with children who are just beginning to learn the English language.

The court's decision to require a more demanding test for progress has major implications for about 6.4 million disabled students who want to advance in school and rely on special programs to make that happen. And yet Judge Gorsuch believes that students with disabilities are only owed an education that is barely more than the minimum. Put another way, "for most children, a FAPE will involve integration in the regular classroom and individualized special education calculated to achieve advancement from grade to grade".

This broad, individualized standard for children who can not reasonably attain grade-level advancement will seemingly require schools to increase the services offered as part of their IEPs.

"It can not be right", he continued, that federal law "generally contemplates grade-level advancement for children with disabilities who are fully integrated in the regular classroom, but is satisfied with barely more than de minimis progress for children who are not". "This ruling effectively challenges school teams to have higher expectations for our children and to deliver services that meet those expectations", she added.