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Why high court's ruling on special education meant so much to parents

Beyond the legal implications, the Supreme Court's unanimous decision is evidence of the shift in the way America thinks about people with disabilities, special needs advocates say.

Brandon Wade/The Dallas Morning News via AP
Erika Burkhardt, left, looks on as Scots Cafe student Chris Wheeler serves a customer at a festival in Dallas March 4, 2017. The cafe is part of the Highland Park Independent School District’s transition program, in which young adults with special needs learn work skills by handling and preparing food for school and local catering events.

When Robert Curtis read the United States Supreme Court’s landmark ruling on special-needs children, he was elated.

“Huge!” says the father of a special-needs fifth-grader. “Really heartwarming.”

That is in part because the opinion, signed by Chief Justice Roberts, was unanimous; and in part because the wording, squarely on the side of parents, was in sharp contrast to what educators had sometimes told him when he worked with a school team to plan his daughter Hannah’s education.

“We’re running a school here, not a hospital. If she needs to be in a wheelchair then she needs to be at a school that can handle it,” he recalls one school administrator telling him.

The high court’s decision last week will give parents a powerful tool to demand higher standards for their special-needs children, advocates say. Overturning a lower court ruling that said a school was only required to provide a "merely more than de minimis" education, the high court said that the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) meant that such children “must be given an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress.” It will force schools to loosen their purse strings and allow educators, who often want the same rigor as parents, to write bolder individualized education programs (IEPs).

“There was actually compassion being projected from the Supreme Court," Mr. Curtis says. "In the current political climate, I had become resigned to the fact that things were just going to get harder.”

Beyond the legal implications, the court's bipartisan decision is evidence of the leaps-and-bounds shift over the past 40 years in the way America thinks about people with disabilities, special needs advocates say. Stigma and low expectations have been replaced with a conviction that every child should have the right to reach their potential.

“The fact that it’s unanimous shows we know a lot more about educating kids with disabilities … and that we recognize that kids with disabilities can make progress and can succeed,” says Laura Schifter, a lecturer of special education at Harvard University who consults with states and advocacy groups. “When you think about it, education generally in the last 100 years has not changed much, but that's not the case in special education.”

Before the IDEA, children with disabilities were seen as uneducable, and often sidelined in institutions, she says. Now, research suggests the gold standard is to have them at least partially included in mainstream classrooms.

At the same time, the ruling will likely spur fresh debate over what constitutes an adequate education. It also, education experts say, will raise school costs. 

"That does mean less money always for everybody else," says Sasha Pudelski, assistant director of policy and advocacy for the School Superintendents Association in Alexandria, Va. "The greatest unfunded mandate in education for the last 40 years is special education... I think there is absolutely a need for Congress to step up and support schools with the funding they need to be compliant."

For the parents of America’s roughly 6.5 million children with special needs, however, the ruling is a boost, especially for those who have endured the indignity of low expectations from local educators.

From the time Hannah was 3 until age 6, Mr. Curtis battled his school in Cambridge, Mass., to give her what he considered a rigorous and inclusive IEP. He would always attach an IEP he drafted himself to the one the school issued, just for the record.

Feeling like the message wasn’t getting through, he opted to withdraw her on medical leave and home-school her in first grade, binding the district to pay for a host of at-home education and therapy services. Eventually, as those costs mounted, the district agreed to pay around $80,000 a year for Hannah, who was diagnosed with a rare form of epilepsy, to attend a private school for special-needs children, a legal requirement if it’s agreed a school can’t meet a student’s needs. 

In last week’s ruling, the eight-member high court decided in favor of the parents of Endrew F., an autistic boy, who sued the Douglas County School District, Colo. for the cost of his private school fees. They withdrew him from public school because they believed his progress had stagnated and the fifth-grade IEP proposed for Endrew would see his progress stall. He was doing much better in his new school.  

'Unexpected warm embrace'

“In the context of cold-hearted austerity policies toward public schools, and cuts to special education programs and services, the court's unanimous decision ...  felt like an unexpected warm embrace,” says Lisa Guisbond, executive director of Citizens for Public Schools, who got involved in advocacy in the late 1990s when her special-needs son Max was in school. “The unanimous decision sends the crucial message that every child deserves the opportunity to reach his or her full potential.”

Indeed, massive shortfalls in federal funding have been at the heart of the tensions between parents who want more, and schools that are strapped for funds and resources.

While the IDEA stipulates that the federal government will pay 40 percent of the per-head cost of educating each child, Ms. Guisbond says this has always been underfunded, meaning the buck is passed to states and districts who have been increasingly strapped for cash, especially in the wake of the Great Recession. The federal government currently fund about 16 percent of per-student costs with 2014 government figures indicating around $17.6 billion in costs were passed onto states.

“Are we ever going to put our money, at a local, state and federal level, where our mouth is when it comes to students with disabilities and public schools in general?” she asks.

However, as Congress has gradually improved the IEP process, the percentage of students with disabilities who have graduated high school increased from 41 percent in 1993 to 65 percent in 2013, according to the National School Boards Association. The percentage of students with disabilities who enroll in a postsecondary program within four years of finishing high school rose from 26.3 percent in 1990 to 45.6 percent in 2005.

Guisbond’s son Max had an overwhelmingly positive and rigorous school experience in the Brookline, Mass., schools he attended. Now 23, he recently graduated with liberal arts degree from Bard College in New York’s Hudson Valley and has a job in his former district as teacher’s assistant to special-needs kids.

Massachusetts has been a leader on special-needs education, including its own 1972 special education law on which the federal IDEA was modeled. But Guisbond knows many special-needs families within the Bay State have not always benefited from the relatively high rigor and funding the system provides.

Furthermore, progress across the nation has been uneven. In some states, the Supreme Court ruling may mean even more.  

For example, over the past five decades, Georgia has had an entirely separate and separately funded program for children with emotional and behavioral disorders called Georgia’s Network for Educational and Therapeutic Support (GNETS). The Atlantic reported recently that it falls far short of its promise, placing students in entirely separate classrooms within public schools where they receive a "paltry" education.

Such reporting is often one-sided, counters Ms. Pudelski of the superintendents association. She knows a number of teachers in Georgia who think the GNETS program is strong.

Nevertheless, the US Department of Justice wrote up the results of a years-long investigation in 2015, and filed a suit in 2016 that claims GNETS violates the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Fostering collaboration

Back in Massachusetts, Julie Messina, whose son Evan is diagnosed with Down syndrome and now attends a “partial inclusion” program at a middle school in Cambridge, says it is all about striking a “reasonable” balance.

On the one hand, she believes the Supreme Court ruling will help parents demand that schools don’t place artificial limits on their children by lowering IEP standards just so they can tick a progress box.

On the other hand, she believes the overwhelmingly positive schooling experience Evan has had can be attributed in large part to fostering a spirit of collaboration, not war, with the team of educators, therapists, and administrators who are assembled to come up with, and carry out, her child’s IEP.

“That’s what goes a long way when it comes to this time of the year when you have to craft high goals, but you have to be realistic about what’s achievable within a one-year period,” Ms. Messina says. “Assume competence of your school team, give them the respect they deserve as professionals.”

For example, she thinks one parent’s demand that their school pay for Hippotherapy – an effective but expensive treatment involving horses – went a step too far.

Still, for Messina “realistic” expectations do not mean setting the bar low for Evan.

Whether he achieves his current goals – to be an astronaut or designer for Tesla – she sees the new Supreme Court mandate as an opportunity to challenge perceived limits.

“If we have high expectations, our kids will rise to them,” she says.

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