News Reports

Top Court Ruling Underscores the Rights of Students with Disabilities

In mid-March, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously agreed that children with disabilities deserve more than the bare minimum from their schools.




April 20, 2017

The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in March that in order to fully comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), public schools must provide more than just a “minimal benefit” to students with disabilities. They must guarantee enough supports to allow every student to advance and grow according to their own abilities. The ruling was celebrated by disability advocates, who say it will advance the cause of free and appropriate education (FAPE) for all children across the United States who learn differently.

The case, known as Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, centered on an autistic boy named Endrew, who attended school in Douglas County, Colorado. He struggled in public school, his parents said, but when they moved to a more supportive private school, the school district refused to reimburse the family — claiming that reimbursement was not legally required since Endrew had received “some” benefit from the public school’s accommodations. A lower court agreed with the school district.

The eight Supreme Court justices, however, weren’t convinced by the district’s argument. In reversing the lower court’s ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts argued that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandated a higher standard than just “some” benefit.

“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,” he wrote. “The IDEA demands more.”

Specifically, it demands access to FAPE — generally defined to mean “a level of instruction reasonably calculated to permit advancement through the general curriculum.” A child receiving merely a minimal amount of benefit — but not advancing through the curriculum to the best of his or her ability — is not receiving FAPE, the justices concluded.

Endrew’s parents wanted the Court to rule that children with disabilities should be offered an education that was “substantially equal” to that received by neurotypical children. While the Court felt that this would be an impossible bar to reach — particularly in the case of severe disability — they wrote that children should be challenged and demonstrate appropriate progress, regardless of ability.

Each child’s curriculum “must be appropriately ambitious in light of (a student’s) circumstances, just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most children in the regular classroom,” the eight justices wrote. “The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”

Advocates for children with disabilities were pleased with the ruling, in spite of its caveats.

“Today the (Supreme Court) affirmed what we know to be the promise of the IDEA,” said Denise Marshall, executive director of the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates. “We expect this unanimous decision to be transformative in the lives of students with disabilities.”

The ruling was issued in mid-March, before Judge Neil Gorsuch was confirmed to the court. In similar cases, Gorsuch has “almost always” voted in favor of school districts and against students with disabilities, according to the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, a national legal-advocacy organization focusing on disability rights.

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