Opinion analysis: Court’s decision rejecting low bar for students with disabilities, under the spotlight

It’s not often that a unanimous Supreme Court decision on special education makes national headlines. But that’s exactly what happened yesterday, when the justices issued their ruling in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. The issue in the case is undoubtedly important to many American families: What kind of “educational benefit” does the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act require public schools to provide to students with disabilities? The Supreme Court unanimously rejected the lower court’s ruling that schools only need to provide a non-trivial benefit.

That’s not why the case drew so much attention, however. When the Supreme Court handed down its ruling yesterday, shortly after 10 a.m., the question presented by Endrew’s case had already been a hot topic of discussion just down the street from the court, at the confirmation hearing for Judge Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s nominee to fill the vacancy created by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia last year. In 2008, Gorsuch had ruled against the family of an autistic child, explaining that the IDEA requires educational benefits that are “merely … ‘more than de minimis.’”

While the Gorsuch hearing was still going on, the justices soundly rejected that reasoning in Endrew F. – a case also out of the 10th Circuit, albeit one in which Gorsuch did not participate. Like the child in the 2008 case, Endrew had been diagnosed with autism. His parents had enrolled him in the local public schools, where teachers reported that he had a “sweet disposition” but nonetheless had some behavioral challenges: He would “scream in class, climb over furniture and other students, and occasionally run away from school.”

Endrew’s parents believed that he was not making any progress, as reflected by his “individualized education program” – the plan prepared for each child with a disability – which essentially used the exact same goals and objectives each year. When the school board gave the family an IEP for fifth grade that Endrew’s parents regarded as simply more of the same, they pulled Endrew from his public school, placed him in a private school, and sought reimbursement for the private school tuition from the school district. The lower courts ruled against the parents. The 10th Circuit reiterated that, under its longstanding case law, an IEP is adequate as long as it is intended to provide “merely more than de minimis” benefits – and Endrew’s IEP, in its view, did exactly that.

In an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts, the justices yesterday sent the case back to the 10th Circuit for it to apply a tougher standard. The court’s past cases and the text of the IDEA, it ruled, require a school “to offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” Normally, Roberts explained, this will mean an educational program designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade. But even if that is not possible, Roberts continued, schools must provide a program that is “appropriately ambitious in light of” the child’s circumstances. “The goals may differ,” Roberts stressed, “but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”

Roberts acknowledged that yesterday’s ruling outlined only “a general standard, not a formula.” “But whatever else can be said about it,” Roberts observed, “this standard is markedly more demanding than the ‘merely more than de minimis’ test applied by the Tenth Circuit.” “When all is said and done,” Roberts noted pointedly, that standard would barely provide “an education at all” to children with disabilities. For those children, “receiving an instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to ‘sitting idly . . . awaiting the time when they were old enough to “drop out.”’” The IDEA, Roberts concluded, “demands more.”

At the same time, yesterday’s ruling did not give Endrew F. and his family everything they had asked for. The justices declined the family’s invitation to establish a more stringent standard that would require public schools to give children with disabilities an opportunity to (among other things) “achieve academic success” and “attain self-sufficiency.” And they emphasized that, as a general rule, courts should not substitute their own judgment for that of school officials. But advocates for children with disabilities nonetheless hailed yesterday’s decision as a big step forward – a ruling that, in light of its role in the Gorsuch hearings, is also not likely to be forgotten anytime soon.

Posted in: Analysis, Featured, Merits Cases

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