(CN) - The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday bolstered the rights of learning-disabled students by requiring public school districts to ensure their special education programs offer these children more than the bare minimum of instruction.
The case, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, was an appeal from two Colorado parents who want their school district to reimburse them for the cost of their autistic son’s private school.
The justice's unanimous decision resolves a split among federal appeals courts over the standards schools must meet under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
The parents, identified as “Joseph F.” and “Jennifer F.” in court documents, enrolled their son, Endrew, in private school for fifth grade after he had a difficult year in public school in the fourth grade.
They said the Douglas County School District failed meet the needs of their son, who frequently exhibited behavioral issues, and as a result, he made little progress in class.
Joseph and Jennifer said the private school was better able to meet their son’s needs, but the district balked at shouldering the costs.
The parents filed a complaint with the Office of Administrative Courts. “The IDEA seeks to provide children with genuine access to public education,” they argued. “School districts that provide only a just-above-trivial benefit cannot achieve this objective.”
The Office of Administrative Courts did not agree, and in September 20154, U.S. District Judge Lewis Babcock affirmed its decision.
The case then moved to the 10th Circuit, which said the school district need only provide “some educational benefit.”
In their petition for a writ of certiorari, Endrew’s parents said that standard simply doesn’t meet the Disabilities Education Act’s goals.
The Obama administration later joined the parents in urging the High Court to adopt the standard the parents are seeking.
The school district argued against Supreme Court review, said the decision to impose the higher standard the parents are seeking should be made by the state legislature, not the courts.
Prior to Wednesday's ruling, the Supreme Court had last offered its interpretation of what was meant by the phrase "free appropriate public education" 34 years ago in Board of Ed. of Hendrick Hudson Central School Dist., Westchester Cty. v. Rowley, but lower courts disagreed on how the 1982 ruling should be interpreted.
In his ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts noted that in deciding Rowley, the justices declined to endorse any one standard for determining "when handicapped children are receiving sufficient educational benefits to satisfy the requirements of the Act."
That, he said, opened the door to revisiting the issue and to Wednesday's unanimous conclusion.
"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," Roberts wrote. "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.’ 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."
Roberts said at this juncture the court would "not attempt to elaborate on what 'appropriate' progress will look like from case to case."
"It is in the nature of the Act and the standard we adopt to resist such an effort: The adequacy of a given IEP turns on the unique circumstances of the child for whom it was created," Roberts said, adding, "This absence of a bright-line rule, however, should not be mistaken for 'an invitation to the courts to substitute their own notions of sound educational policy for those of the school authorities which they review.'”