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Special Needs Planning Newsletter: Don't Settle for a One-Size-Fits-All Education

Chambliss Law Firm Monthly Editorial – June 2017

Don't Settle for a One-Size-Fits-All Education

by Rebecca Miller, Special Needs Planning Attorney

Good news! A recent United States Supreme Court decision adopts a higher standard of education for children with disabilities and could improve educational progress for millions of students with disabilities. In Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, the Supreme Court made a monumental decision to increase the education expectations for children with disabilities which empower parents to demand more than a one-size-fits-all Individualized Education Plan, better known as IEP. This decision upholds The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which is explained in detail below.

Endrew (Drew), a student with autism and attention deficit disorder, attended Douglas County schools in Colorado from preschool to fourth grade, but he was making little to no progress on the goals of his IEP. Despite the lack of progress, each year the school system continued to present Drew's parents with an IEP that had the same basic goals and objectives. Frustrated with his lack of educational progress, Drew's parents enrolled him in a private school. He made much better progress, both academically and socially, under the plan implemented by the private school. Consequently, his parents filed a complaint with the Colorado Department of Education, seeking reimbursement for the cost of the private school. When the school district refused to pay the cost of the private school, Drew’s parents filed a lawsuit.           

Drew's parents, along with advocates for disabled students, argued that the IDEA requires schools to provide "equal educational opportunity" and a substantial and meaningful educational benefit for children with disabilities. The school district countered, saying that Drew only had the right to a minimal (de minimis) benefit from his IEP, and the lower courts agreed. So, Drew's parents appealed.    

In the end, the Supreme Court sided with Drew's family in a unanimous decision that both rejects the de minimis standard for IEPs and mandates that school districts give students with disabilities the opportunity to make meaningful, "appropriately ambitious," progress in light of their circumstances. According to the Court's opinion, "every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives," so schools must tailor the IEP to each child’s personal strengths and weaknesses. Delivering the opinion of the Court, Justice Roberts stated, "It cannot be right that the IDEA generally contemplates grade-level advancement for children with disabilities who are fully integrated in the regular classroom, but is satisfied with barely more than de minimis progress for children who are not." And, the Court recognizes that children with disabilities should receive education in a regular classroom whenever possible. 

Many families struggle with the education their loved ones with special needs receive. Please contact us if you would like to discuss education, benefits, or other challenging issues.

For background and additional details regarding the IDEA, see below.

Background on the IDEA:

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires schools to provide a "free appropriate public education" to students with disabilities. Under the IDEA, schools receive funding and develop Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). These IEPs are developed with input from parents and are programs with specially designed instruction that includes:

  • a description of the child’s level of academic achievement and performance and the effect of the disability on the child’s performance;
  • measureable goals; and 
  • specific information regarding special education services to be provided.