Americas Jan 16, 2017
The Supreme Court on Wednesday will hear a significant case about the level of education support children with disabilities must receive in the public school system.
Back in 1975, Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, which was later renewed and changed to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (or IDEA). The federal government in today’s case, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, wants the Court to clarify what Congress has meant since it set these policies since 1975, and specifically the concept of “free appropriate public education” for disabled children at public schools.
The case is about the following question: “What is the level of educational benefit that school districts must confer on children with disabilities to provide them with the free appropriate public education guaranteed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act?”
A 15-year-old Littleton, Colo., student, identified only as Endrew F. (his parents call him “Drew”), is challenging a federal appeals court ruling. The youth is autistic and has attention deficit disorder, compromising his verbal and non-verbal communications skills.
When his parents and school officials couldn’t agree on an individualized educational plan (or IEP) for him in public schools, Drew was placed in a private school that specializes in teaching autistic students. The family then sued to recover the private school tuition, contending that the school district was obliged to pay because it failed to provide Drew with an adequate educational opportunity.
A trial judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit denied the challenge, finding that the law only required a benefit level just above trivial, and that Drew had received better than that level in public school.
The Court first addressed these questions in 1992 in the case of Board of Education v. Rowley, where it provided a partial definition of the word “appropriate” but refused to make it more specific. Since then, the Court hasn’t returned to the issue until today.
In the Rowley decision, the court said that public schools didn’t have to maximize the learning potential of children with disabilities, because Congress didn’t indicate a requirement of “strict equality of opportunity or services” in the public school setting. But, it said, each disabled child’s educational plan must be “reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits.”
The Court also didn’t establish a test for what would be appropriate in each given child’s situation. “The courts must be careful to avoid imposing their view of preferable educational methods upon the States. Once a court determines that the Act’s requirements have been met, questions of methodology are for resolution by the States,” said Justice William Rehnquist in the majority opinion.
Since 1992, the lower federal courts have reached widely varying interpretations of appropriate standards of achievement.