Supreme Court Rules the Bare Minimum is No Longer Enough for Special Needs Children
By John Whitbeck
Op Ed published in The Loudoun Tribune, March 30, 2017.
All parents of school-age children face the difficult task of monitoring their progress through school. This critical parenting responsibility is somewhat easier for many of us in northern Virginia due to the high quality of our schools. But imagine if your child had a mental or physical disability that made learning more difficult. Thousands of parents across Virginia face this challenge every day in our special education system.
Surprisingly, the United States Supreme Court just made it easier for parents of special needs children to ensure that their children receive an appropriate education.
In a case Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, a unanimous Supreme Court made it very clear to educators that they are required to educate a disabled child more than just enough to help them “get by.”
Endrew is a young boy with autism who filed suit through his parents against his Douglas County, Colorado school district, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Endrew’s suit challenged Douglas County’s denial of Endrew’s claim for reimbursement for private school tuition at a special school for autistic students. Essentially, the public school Endrew was attending was doing just the minimum to get him from grade to grade and he wasn’t really learning anything.
Over time his parents grew increasingly frustrated and eventually removed him from public school and enrolled him in a private school. Not surprisingly, Endrew made great strides in his education at the private school. After years of litigation over Endrew’s claim, the Supreme Court ruled in favor and held that in order to comply with the IDEA, a school must give a child an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that has a chance of actually working.
Parents of special needs children know that the IDEA is the foundation of special education. The IDEA offers states federal education dollars for educating children with disabilities in exchange for the state agreeing to comply with federal law, including providing disabled children a “free and public education” or FAPE.
Most students who are found to be in need of special help are given IEPs each year. As the Supreme Court observed, the IEP is “the centerpiece” of the special education system. An IEP is a plan drafted in collaboration with parents and a team of educators that takes into consideration a child’s individual circumstances. These circumstances can include their mental or physical disabilities, behavioral challenges or medical conditions.
Each IEP is tailored to the unique educational needs of the individual child and is reviewed each year by parents and educators. When disagreement over an IEP arises, parents can go to mediation, take the case before an administrative hearing and then initiate litigation in state or federal court to get the dispute settled.
This is what happened in Endrew’s case. Each year the same IEP was essentially put in place. Over time Endrew’s parents realized that their son was barely making progress and that the public school system was not doing enough to help him get an appropriate education. They made the decision to move Endrew to private school, rejected his IEP and requested that the public school system pay for his private school tuition.
After years of litigation, the appeals court that was overturned by the Supreme Court said that Douglas County acted appropriately and that all that was required in an IEP that the school district merely do more than the bare minimum. Endrew’s parents appealed the ruling to the Supreme Court.
“Now educators will be on notice of what their education obligations truly are, and parents will be able to negotiate these education plans from a position of strength.”
The Supreme Court resoundingly and unanimously rejected this “bare minimum standard.”
Instead, the Court said that schools must provide an IEP that is “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress (in his/her education) appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” For parents, this means a school has to do more than the bare minimum when creating an IEP. Essentially, the school is required to work out an IEP that actually has a chance of educating a special needs child, and if it doesn’t work, change the IEP so it actually has a chance of working. For Endrew and children like him, this can even mean a public school system paying for a private school education.
What is so extraordinary about the opinion is it sets a standard that protects children and their parents from the danger that schools will only do the minimum required just to comply with federal law. Schools are now on notice that they cannot just do the bare minimum to educate a special needs child. On the contrary, schools must do whatever is necessary to create an IEP that has a reasonable chance of working, and if it fails, they must make whatever changes are necessary to help ensure the child’s educational progress.
Endrew’s case highlights that the true intent of the IDEA must be observed, specifically that every child is special, unique and must be educated in a way that is tailored to their individual needs. For most children, the standard system works. But for those children that face challenges, schools are going to have to work harder to help them. That’s not to say that schools are not already doing what the Supreme Court now mandates. Many are. But unfortunately some are not. And, in those cases where schools are failing, the Supreme Court has now clearly spelled out their responsibilities. As parents it is our job to hold our children’s schools accountable and the Supreme Court has given us the tools to do this.
The net effect of the Supreme Court’s decision is that parents will now walk into IEP meetings with a more level playing field. Traditionally, parents and educators collaborated to come up with a comprehensive plan on how to best educate a child. Now educators will be on notice of what their education obligations truly are, and parents will be able to negotiate these education plans from a position of strength. The result is a better system to educate our special needs children and that is really what the IDEA has intended all along.
Thank you Endrew.
John Whitbeck is a partner at Whitbeck Cisneros McElroy PC, a northern Virginia law firm that focuses on family law, divorce, mental health and special education. Mr. Whitbeck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (703) 777-1795.