Here’s Chief Justice John Roberts, issuing the Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion today in a case called Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District.
When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing ‘merely more than de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all.
You can read the whole ruling, but the bottom line is that SCOTUS decided that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a federal law modeled after civil rights laws, forbids school districts from providing only minimal programming to students with disabilities. On the contrary, schools are to provide services that foster meaningful academic progress.
This is big news in the world of special education and a cause for celebration among all stakeholders. (Full disclosure: I’m one of them because I have a son with multiple disabilities.) But the ruling itself is merely a bunch of bits on compliance and accountability. On its own, this decision and a metrocard will get your special-needs kid a ride on the subway.
In this particular case, Endrew F., a child with autism who attended preschool through fourth grade in Colorado’s Douglas County School District, was making little academic progress. His teachers described him in progress notes as a “humorous child” with a “sweet disposition” but he “exhibited multiple behaviors that inhibited his ability to access learning in the classroom.” The ruling continues:
Endrew would scream in class, climb over furniture and other students, and occasionally run away from school. He was afflicted by severe fears of commonplace things like flies, spills, and public restrooms. As Endrew’s parents saw it, his academic and functional progress had essentially stalled.
His parents sensed that Endrew had more potential and were dissatisfied with the school’s low expectations. Their dissatisfaction deepened when Endrew’s proposed fifth-grade individualized education plan (IEP)—the set of annual goals and objectives crafted by child study teams—merely replicated his unmet fourth-grade goals and objectives.
Using an approach not uncommon with resourceful families, Endrew’s parents exercised their right to school choice and unilaterally enrolled him in a private school called Firefly Autism House. As is typical with special education schools that focus on severe cases of autism, Firefly offers the gold standard of treatment for autism called Applied Behavioral Analysis with a ratio of one student per teacher.
After Endrew enrolled, his parents, following IDEA regulations, sued the district for tuition reimbursement. (The school’s website doesn’t disclose rates but in 2011 the Denver Post said annual tuition was $66,999. Similar programs in my home state of New Jersey currently cost about $100,000 or more per year.)
According to the SCOTUS ruling:
Endrew did much better at Firefly. The school developed a ‘behavioral intervention plan’ that identified and ameliorated his most challenging behaviors and Firefly also added heft to Endrew’s academic goals.
Within a few months, “ Endrew’s behavior improved significantly, permitting him to make a degree of academic progress that had eluded him in public school.”
In other words, the “de minimus” educational program offered by Endrew’s traditional school was no education at all. Today Justice Roberts quoted from a 1982 precedent on special education called Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley:
For children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to ‘sitting idly…awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out.
He added, “the IDEA demands more. It requires an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”
In an ironic twist, today was also the third day of Judge Neil Gorsuch’s Supreme Court confirmation hearing. And the ruling that the Supreme Court issued today overturned a Tenth Circuit Court decision written by—you got it—Judge Gorsuch.
But no matter: An 8-1 decision would still be reason for special education advocates to celebrate, with the caveat that all rests on accountability and compliance. We’ve got the ruling but now the hard part begins.