A Landmark Victory: Supreme Court Rules Unanimously For Special Education Students

Regina Skyer will be discussing the Endrew F. ruling live on NPR’s national show The Takeaway today (Thursday) at 9:20AM. Tune in at 93.9 FM and AM 820 or click on the livestream on WNYC’s website http://www.wnyc.org/. 

The Supreme Court returned a landmark unanimous (8-0) decision in the case of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District in favor of a special education student. We are thrilled that the Court has taken such a clear and strong stand, powerfully affirming the spirit of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

As we first reported to you in January, when five senior attorneys from our office traveled to Washington DC to listen to oral arguments, the Endrew F. case concerns a fourth grade student with autism named Endrew F. whose parents enrolled him in a private school specializing in autism for which they sought reimbursement from their school district in Colorado. The district argued that they shouldn’t have to pay because in his prior public school program Endrew F. had made “some” educational progress. The parents’ attorneys argued that Endrew F. was entitled to a “meaningful” educational benefit.

What the Court has decided is that in order for a school to meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA “a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” The Court rejected the school district’s argument that for a child to receive a free and appropriate public education the IEP only need provide some de minimis (minimal) benefit to the child—as opposed to no benefit at all.

In their written opinion, the Court explained that the IEP “must aim to enable the child to make progress,” and while not every child may be in a mainstream classroom, “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”

What this means practically is that whether an IEP is adequate will turn on the child’s unique circumstances and needs and the procedures for developing their IEP. This is big news for New York state residents because the Second Circuit (which New York State is a part of) has long subscribed to the absurdly low de minimis standard. However, with the help of today’s historic decision, we look forward to holding our school districts to a higher standard.

The decision itself is only 16 pages long and special education families will be familiar with much of its language and concepts. Don’t be intimidated—read it. This is a historic moment and one to celebrate.