USA Education First Look

In unanimous decision, Supreme Court raises bar for special education

The ruling could bring major benefits to students with disabilities – especially those with 'individualized education programs,' or IEPs.

Chief Justice John Roberts speaks in Lexington, Ky., Feb. 1, 2017. A unanimous US Supreme Court bolstered the rights of learning-disabled students in a March 22 ruling that requires public schools to offer special education programs that meet higher standards.
Timothy D. Easley/AP/File
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On Wednesday, the US Supreme Court unanimously ruled in favor of two parents of an autistic son, finding that his Colorado school district had failed to provide him with a "free and appropriate public education."

School districts are required to provide such an education under the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). But the exact meaning of an "appropriate" education has remained unclear.

In January, The Christian Science Monitor’s Henry Gass explained that some federal appeals courts have “held that the district is only required to provide educational benefits that are more than minimal or trivial,” while others have instead ruled that “schools must supply a ‘meaningful educational benefit.’” As a result, “it is unclear whether school districts have to provide ‘meaningful’ or just ‘more than trivial’ educational benefits to students.”

In their unanimous opinion, the Supreme Court’s eight justices came down decisively against the “more than trivial” camp, a ruling that could bring major benefits to students with disabilities – especially those with “individualized education programs,” or IEPs.

"It cannot be right that the IDEA generally contemplates grade-level advancement for children with disabilities who are fully integrated in the regular classroom,” argued Chief Justice John Roberts in the opinion, “but is satisfied with barely more than de minimis progress for children who are not."

The plaintiffs’ son, only identified as Endrew F., was diagnosed with autism and attention-deficit disorder. He had been put on an IEP by Colorado’s Douglas County School District. His parents believed him to be making inadequate progress, and, in the fifth grade, placed him in a private school. He proceeded to make better progress there, and his parents sued the Douglas County School District for the cost of the private school tuition.

Lower courts, applying the “more than trivial” test, sided with the school district. In January, as a Supreme Court decision loomed, the Monitor’s Mr. Gass reported that the National School Boards Association (NBSA) was watching the case with concern. “A one-size-fits-all mandate is artificial and not inclined to serving children,” Francisco Negrón, general counsel for the NSBA, told the Monitor. “It might set a child back by setting up a standard wholly unrelated to the needs of the child” – and pass greater costs onto school districts.

But now, by siding with the plaintiffs and against the “more than trivial” test, the Supreme Court answered the concerns raised by groups seeking greater resources in public schools. “A standard more meaningful than just-above-trivial is the norm today,” argued the National Association of State Directors of Special Education in a Friend-of-the-Court brief.

The justices’ 8-0 decision points to the bipartisan nature of this sentiment, as does Sen. Susan Collins’s recent decision to oppose Betsy DeVos’s nomination for Secretary of Education. During the confirmation process, the Maine Republican had voiced concerns about Ms. Devos's unfamiliarity with IDEA.

But in the court system, one noteworthy supporter of school districts against students has been Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee. NPR reports that, as a federal judge on the 10th Circuit, he “repeatedly ruled the other way on similar cases.”

But during his confirmation hearing Wednesday, Judge Gorsuch insisted that he was “bound by district precedent” to apply the “more than trivial” standard, and that he found doing so “heartbreaking.”

Now that the Supreme Court has adopted a higher standard, Gorsuch promised, “I will follow the law.”