SCOTUS Ruling Reinforces Educational Rights of Students with Disabilities

Recent U.S. Supreme Court Decision Reinforces What School Districts Should Already Be Doing for Children Entitled to Special Education

Nina Peckman, Staff Attorney

Every day, I receive phone calls from worried parents trying to navigate the special education system for their children. Parents often struggle to be heard by their school districts to get the supports and services their children are entitled to, in order to make meaningful academic progress.

But on March 22, 2017, the United States Supreme Court made a unanimous decision that will help children with disabilities across the country. For the first time in 35 years, it addressed how much educational benefit is required for a special education program to be considered “appropriate.” In Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, the Court ruled that a school district must provide an education to a student with disabilities that is “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

What does this mean? The Court concluded that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which governs education for children with disabilities, requires schools to offer an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that is student-centered and substantially beneficial, with their unique needs and abilities in mind. Most important, an IEP must clearly enable the student to make meaningful academic progress.

Prior to this opinion, a number of courts had allowed school districts to meet its responsibility as long as the educational program provided “merely more than a de minimis” or minimal level of progress. This low standard is no longer sufficient.

This Court decision is a clear endorsement of the rights that already exist for New Jersey’s students with disabilities. Our state courts have long required that school districts meet a higher standard of education than many other states by requiring that an IEP provide significant learning and meaningful benefit to a student with a disability (Ridgewood Board of Education vs. N.E. for M.E. 172 F.3d 238 (1999)).

What does this legal decision mean for students with disabilities and their parents? The U.S. Supreme Court clarified and emphasized these important education rights:

  • Services that ensure meaningful academic progress. “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.”
    The child study team must make sure that a student receives evaluations conducted by professionals with the necessary expertise, that school records clearly establish what progress has been made, and that all available records are carefully considered.
  • Parental input in the IEP. The law regarding the development of an IEP “contemplates that this fact-intensive exercise will be informed not only by the expertise of school officials, but also by the input of the child’s parents or guardians.”
    School staff and parents should know that parent involvement is crucial to the IEP process to enable the student to make progress. In order for a parent to have real input into the IEP, the child study team should help the parent understand the IEP process, child study team evaluation reports, the rationale for child study team decisions and the parent’s rights to challenge school district action and of course, take into account the parent’s observations and expert reports.
  • Development of challenging student objectives. An “educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of [a student’s] circumstances,” and “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”
    The IEP should contain language that describes challenging objectives given the child’s circumstances and include services that are reasonable to enable a child to make meaningful progress.

The recent Court decision brings clarity to rights of students with disabilities and the role parents have in helping develop their child’s education program in school.

To read the full text of the opinion in this case, please visit https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/16pdf/15-827_0pm1.pdf.

Nina Peckman, Esq. at ACNJ’s KidLaw Resource Center provides pro bono legal assistance to low income parents, caretakers, and also to professionals working with children. Legal services are offered in English and Spanish and include phone consultations, assistance at school meetings, participation at State Mediation, direct negotiations with school districts to resolve disputes, workshops, and the development of print materials regarding education law, advocacy strategies and practical tips. ACNJ does not litigate. Guides and facts are available on ACNJ’s website at www.kidlaw.org.

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