US Supreme Court Advances Rights of Special Education Students; Student Supported by Law Center Amicus Brief Prevails

The US Supreme Court unanimously rejected the position of six circuit courts that federal law was met if a school provided “merely more than de minimis” progress to a student with a disability. The decision on March 22, 2017 was in the case of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District RE-1.

The Public Interest Law Center had filed an amicus brief urging the court to reject that standard on behalf of eight disabilities and public interest organizations: Autism Speaks; the National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS); TASH; the International Dyslexia Association (IDA); United Cerebral Palsy; the Washington Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs; Decoding Dyslexia chapters, and Public Counsel.

The Court reiterated its conclusion from 35 years ago in a case called Rowley that there is no single standard or description of how much progress is required, either de minimis or substantially equal, but that the  education program “must be reasonably calculated to make  progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” For most children, the Court said, an appropriate education will involve integration in a regular classroom and education calculated to achieve advancement from grade to grade. But unlike Rowley, which involved a student in regular classes, the Court in Endrew F. went on and specified that for a child like Endrew F. who cannot be fully integrated in the regular curriculum, “his educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances….every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”

The Court declared “this standard is markedly more demanding than the ‘merely more than de minimis’ test” of the Tenth Circuit. This requirement of a challenging program parallels the finding of Congress in 1997 that the low expectations of schools for students with disabilities were a significant problem in the implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The Law Center’s amicus brief pointed out to the Court how the amendments to the IDEA required peer reviewed best practices and use of technology which was incompatible with the de minimis benefits approved by the lower courts.

For students and schools the clear message will be that a comprehensive evaluation of the student’s needs and goals is at the center of compliance with the IDEA and that courts will look at progress in relation to those goals. For some districts the most demanding statement   may turn out to be one the Court thought of as innocuous: “An IEP is not a form document. It is constructed only after careful consideration of the child’s present levels of achievement, disability and potential for growth.”

It is unusual that a unanimous court rejects the practices of the majority of circuit courts. The moderate tone of the opinion should not lead anyone to under-estimate its importance in improving the opportunities for more meaningful education for thousands of students.

The Law Center is proud to once again have played a role in advancing the civil rights of students with disabilities.