On January 11, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument in an important special education case, Endrew F. v. Douglas Co. School District RE-1. Endrew is a child with autism. He attended the public school system in Colorado through 4th grade. During that time he developed severe behavior problems, including repeatedly injuring himself and bolting from the school. His parents claimed that he made no academic progress in 2nd, 3rd, or 4th grade. The school did nothing to combat the behavior problems. Endrew’s parents withdrew him from the public school and placed him in a private school for autistic students. Endrew made rapid progress at the private school and the parents asked the public school to reimburse them for the private tuition.
At issue in the court case is whether a school district has to provide disabled children with an education that allows them to make meaningful progress or whether any amount of progress, as long as it is slightly more than trivial, is good enough. The administrative law judge concluded that Endrew had made “some progress” on a few of his goals in the public school system, and that was all that was required. Reimbursement of tuition was accordingly denied. The district court, in reviewing the administrative decision, agreed, concluding that minimal progress and “some” educational benefit is all that the law mandates. The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. The Supreme Court will now decide what kind of education disabled children are entitled to under the federal special education law.
At yesterday’s oral argument, the attorney for the school district argued that as long as schools follow the procedures of the special education law — evaluate, convene team meetings, write IEPs, permit parental involvement in team meetings — districts are doing all that they are legally required to do. The attorney for the student argued that Congress intended that disabled children should have an educational opportunity equal to non-disabled children and that the Act therefore requires that a school provide a student with an educational program that allows the student to make meaningful progress year over year.
Ultimately the Court will decide whether disabled kids are guaranteed an education that provides them with meaningful benefits that will lead to, to the extent possible, post-secondary education, employment, and independent living, or whether these vulnerable kids are entitled only to an educational program that provides “some” progress and leaves them with a very uncertain future. The decision is expected in the spring of 2017. Watch this space.