Supreme Court Ruling on Special Education: What’s Next for Schools?
The question of whether or not our country needs a new standard for supporting special education students has now been answered by a unanimous and affirmative decision from the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 0-8 decision, the Supreme Court sided in favor of expanding the rights for children with disabilities. But immediately following the court’s ruling last month, a series of new questions — both from inside and outside of the education community — started to pop up in the news and on social media.
To understand these new questions and address possible next steps for schools, it’s important to understand the history and conventions associated with public schools and special education.
A Brief History of Events Leading Up to the Ruling
1975: Congress enacts the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) to ensure that children with disabilities have access to an education and legal due process. Congress builds an elaborate system of procedural safeguards into the law to protect the rights of children and their parents.1
1990: The EAHCA is amended and renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This amendment calls for many changes to the old law — districts are now required to measure educational outcomes and assist students with disabilities in transitioning from high school to postsecondary life.2, 3
2004: President Bush signs the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, a reauthorization and revision of IDEA, intended to “help children learn better by promoting accountability for results, enhancing parent involvement, using proven practices and materials, providing more flexibility, and reducing paperwork burdens for teachers, states and local school districts.” 4
2015: The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit in Denver hears Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. The case centers around the experience of Endrew F., a boy diagnosed with autism and ADHD, whose parents transferred him to private school after they felt his public school didn’t provide him the necessary support he needed in fourth grade. Endrew’s parents seek reimbursement for his private school tuition, feeling that reimbursement is warranted under federal law — but the court rejects the reimbursement, stating that the public school Endrew had attended had met its obligations under IDEA.5
2016: In September, the Supreme Court announces it will heed the recommendation of the federal government and hear Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, thus taking on the challenge of deciding the minimum actions that public schools must take to help learning-disabled students.6
2017: After hearing the case, the Supreme Court rules in favor of Endrew and his parents, and implements a new educational standard for students with special needs. Their decision states that schools must now do more than provide special education students with a “merely more than de minimis” education.7
How Will Schools Will Move Forward?
The bar has now been raised for how schools assist students with disabilities, but what does this new normal look like for schools on a year-to-year and even day-to-day basis? The Supreme Court’s decision is understandably open-ended in some respects — because every child is unique and needs individualized support — but it does note that a child’s IEP must be “appropriately ambitious.” Public school advocates emphasize that schools already meet this standard.
Even though schools currently provide special education students with a free and appropriate public education, this new standard could change the way states and districts approach their special education programs. But given the flexibility of the new standard, it isn’t yet clear what changes will take place.
Will this heightened standard mean schools need to implement new (and more specific) practices for each special education student? These new practices may differ from current practices; if so, the shift from one way of operating to the next could be costly for schools from a general resource perspective.
New benchmarks would then need to be consistently measured and evaluated by special education staff following implementation, potentially raising the level of oversight required in a part of the education system currently experiencing a teacher shortage. Supporters of public schools say that the establishment, measurement and assessment of new standards would further stretch the already underfunded public school system.
An Important Silver Lining
The debate sparked by this case is a focal point for our community, not only because it has the potential to impact our daily lives, but also because our children are so important to us. We want to ensure they have everything they need to be successful. Despite the real challenges that lay ahead for districts, schools and individuals, this case has once again brought to light an important national priority: our commitment to protecting our children and planning for their continued success. This shared goal is something for which we can all be truly grateful as we forge ahead.