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High Court ruling raises the bar, ensuring disabled students receive a meaningful education

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The U.S. Supreme Court delivered a ruling [2] last week that will empower parents of disabled students to make sure their children are getting a meaningful education and hold public schools accountable if not.

The court looked at the question of whether public schools – under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) – should be required to provide students with disabilities an equal education to other students or just an adequate education.

Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District [3] is the first time the high court has reviewed such an educational standard since Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley [4] in the early 80s.

The Rowley decision set a legal standard that schools must only provide students with a “merely more than de minimus,” education to satisfy IDEA. In other words, students with disabilities were entitled to some educational benefit but not more than that.

The Supreme Court rejected that in its ruling last week and determined that students with disabilities who have Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) are entitled to reasonable progress “appropriate in light of [their] circumstances.”

“You can’t just assume that because [a child has] a very specific disability that some very, very minor amount of progress is OK,” said Virginia Fogg, a senior attorney at Disability Rights NC [5].

About 12 percent of North Carolina public school students have disabilities requiring IEPs, according to the Department of Public Instruction [6]. The department did not return a request for comment about plans to address special education programs in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling.

The case

In Endrew, the parents of Endrew F., a minor with autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), sought private school reimbursement under IDEA after pulling their son from public school over a proposed IEP for his fifth grade year.

They did not believe the public school district, Douglas County School District in Colorado, was doing enough to provide their son an adequate education.

“Although Endrew displayed a number of strengths – his teachers described him as a humorous child with a ‘sweet disposition’ who ‘show[ed] concern for friends’ – he still ‘exhibited multiple behaviors that inhibited his ability to access learning in the classroom,” according to the Court opinion.

Endrew’s parents felt their son’s academic and functional progress had stalled.

“Endrew’s IEPs largely carried over the same basic goals and objectives from one year to the next, indicating that he was failing to make meaningful progress toward his aims,” the opinion states. “His parents believed that only a thorough overhaul of the school district’s approach to Endrew’s behavioral problems could reverse the trend.”

After the school presented his fifth-grade IEP in 2010 that was “pretty much the same” as prior IEPs, Endrew’s parents put him in a private school that specializes in educating children with autism.

The child did much better there and the private school developed a behavioral intervention plan to help, in addition to adding heft to his academic goals, according to the Court.

After another encounter with the Douglas County School District, Endrew’s parents filed a complaint seeking reimbursement for the private school tuition, and ultimately sought relief from the courts.

A lower court [7] used the standard set in Rowley and determined that since Endrew received “some educational benefit,” the IDEA standard to provide free, appropriate education had been met. An appeal landed the case in the Supreme Court.

In the high court’s opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote [8] that a child’s IEP must be “reasonably calculated to enable the child to make progress appropriate in light of his circumstances.”

Rowley did not provide concrete guidance with respect to a child who is not fully integrated in the regular classroom and not able to achieve on grade level,” the official summary issued by the Court states. “A child’s IEP need not aim for grade-level advancement if that is not a reasonable prospect. But that child’s educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his 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.”

What does it mean?

Endrew is a complicated case that can be confusing – even for even education law experts. Some of the language is vague and the opinion is 20 pages long.

“I think for parents, they need to not worry about all of the terminology and just ask … questions,” said Jane Wettach, director of the Children’s Law Clinic at Duke University.

The ruling does not affect all students with disabilities – only those who are not integrated in the regular classroom and who are not able to move from grade to grade at a reasonable clip. For those kids, parents should expect that their child is going to make good, strong progress year-to-year, Wettach said.

“Does your child know more at the end of the year than they did at the beginning of the year? Can they do more things – and in sort of a meaningful, significant way?,” she asked.

Other questions she recommended parents ask to determine if their child is getting a meaningful education include: Are they making progress or are they just stagnating? Are they moving forward at a reasonable pace given who they are and their challenges?

Fogg added that the key takeaway for parents is that they need to require proof of progress monitoring from their children’s IEPs. She said they should ask for progress reports at every report card or more, and they should require data and work samples to show progress, not just anecdotal examples.

“Overall for parents, it’s about demanding that there’s proof of progress and if there’s not, then demand that whatever needs to be changed to ensure that progress is changed in the IEP and that those new or different services are then implemented with fidelity,” Fogg said.

She also pointed out that another big part of the Supreme Court’s ruling is that it addressed more than just academic standards; it also focused on behavioral issues.

“That’s a big deal,” she said. “Most children with significant disabilities who are not in regular education classrooms … are going to have behaviors that interfere with their learning abilities.”

Fogg added that in North Carolina, there is a lack of knowledge and training in how to appropriately deal with those behaviors – similar to in Endrew’s case. There are too few special educators who do have that expertise

“It’s not really OK to just say we can’t do anything with this child because their behaviors are just interfering with everything, so we can’t accomplish anything,” Fogg said. “To me, [the court’s opinion is] a clear signal that the behaviors have to be dealt with in an appropriate way and you can’t just stop trying when behaviors are an issue.”

Possible change

The Endrew decision did not provide a bright-line standard that can be applied to all children with disabilities, but that doesn’t mean that public schools can’t or shouldn’t re-evaluate their special education programs.

Wettach said that while the decision is a big deal, she doesn’t believe it will change much in North Carolina.

“A lot of people and well-intentioned special educators have always wanted more than just a trivial amount of progress for their students,” she said.

That being said, Wettach added that if there are changes, it will start at the school level, and in the meantime, she will be advising parents to look at their child’s IEPs for appropriately ambitious standards and goals with challenging objectives.

“Those are still vague terms,” she said. “This case doesn’t do any more than Rowley did in terms of leaving us with something more specific, and that’s for some good reason. … You can’t make one kind of really specific standard that it would be reasonable to judge all children by.”

As an example, she said goals would look very different for a child who has very profound autism versus goals for a child with superior intellectual abilities but who has a reading disability.

“I think the standard is just a little more exacting; it’s a little more demanding than it was before, and when cases do go to court, I think the courts will look to this case,” Wettach said.