Supreme Court Underscores Rights of Students with Severe Disabilities to an Appropriate Education

March 27, 2017

Disability Justice, Education, Legislative

U.S. Supreme Court

In a unanimous ruling this week, the U.S. Supreme Court resoundingly rejected the claim that students with disabilities are merely entitled to a minimal educational benefit.

The plaintiff in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District is a boy with autism whose parents placed him in a private school after he made little progress in his public school district. The parents’ subsequent claim for reimbursement was denied by the district court and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that the child had made “minimal progress,” and that was all that was mandated by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The Supreme Court’s reversal established a high standard for the delivery of special education services, mandating that schools offer an Individualized Education Program that is “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” As the author of the opinion, Chief Justice Roberts, noted, “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.” In fact, Justice Roberts continued,’ “receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to ‘sitting idly … awaiting the time when they were old enough to “drop out.”‘”

For students like Endrew F. who are not fully included in the general education classroom, the educational services provided “must be appropriately ambitious,” and “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.” Further, the Court noted that this standard is “markedly more demanding than the ‘merely more than de minimis’ test applied by the Tenth Circuit” (emphasis added).

Of note is the fact that the minimal educational benefit standard, which the Supreme Court so thoroughly rejected, was first introduced by President Trump’s nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court, Judge Neil Gorsuch.

New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, which through its Disability Justice program submitted an amicus brief to the Supreme Court in the case, praised the decision as affirming the law for this region and enhancing the rights of students with disabilities nationwide.

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