Supreme Court and Special Education

The United States Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling on Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District sometime soon. According to the Washington Post, Supreme Court Justices are struggling to find proper wording that adequately conveys meaning while avoiding ambiguity (anyone who has written goals for students with disabilities knows the struggle). The plaintiff in the case argues that the school district owes them reimbursement for private school costs for their child with autism due to the district failing to provide free and appropriate public education (FAPE) as it is laid out in federal law.

Two Things to Consider

There are two issues to consider in the case. One is whether public schools should be required to cover the costs of private school if a family is unsatisfied with the level of education and services provided to their child. The other issue is whether the school district provided FAPE in good faith according to their knowledge and means. I do not know all the details and evidence of the case, so what I comment on going forward is my opinion and assumptions drawn in broad sense of the state of special education in the United States and not fact on this singular court case.

balance-1172800-639x433Public schools have the responsibility to provide the best quality education to all students. Some argue that quality can be different for individuals with disabilities since their ability to learn and execute information is different and/or limited. However, many studies have shown that individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities can be successful in school and the workforce if provided with adequate supports and training. Parents can take school districts to court in order to get proper support and education plans for their children. For example, parents who are unsatisfied with the quality of an IEP can request legal arbitration to potentially get the document to meet the needs of the child. Schools know the legal action that can be taken against them for IEPs and other related issues. School districts can not legally deny assistive technology evaluations, devices or services due to a lack of funding. Schools also have a legal responsibility to provide highly qualified teachers and aides to work with students. What I do not know about the Supreme Court case is whether or not the plaintiff attempted legal action before moving to private school. Any legal costs would be paid by the school district had the plaintiff won in arbitration. There are also advocacy groups across the country who would be of service at reasonable cost. If the plaintiff did not seek legal action before moving schools, then maybe the school district should not be responsible for costs of private school.

The main issue of the case seems to be around wording of “some educational benefit” that is found in federal law. This wording is vague and has led to many issues on whether students with disabilities receive adequate services. In fact, many school districts ignore IDEA mandates in special education, whether or not it is due to certain wording found in the law. Texas has been in the news for failing to provide adequate services in the past. Less than half of IEPs and transition plans studied by researchers fail to be in full compliance with IDEA and students are often unprepared to enter the workforce (see the Literature Review post on YellowPencilProject.com). Teachers across the country have reported feeling unprepared to deal teach special education students (Able, Sreckovic, Schultz, Garwood, & Sherman, 2014). Schools know–or should know–of teaching methods that can be used to help students with disabilities, such as Universal Design for Learning and many evidence-based interventions that have been built from applied behavioral analysis. If the school system knew of teaching methods and mandates–including assistive technology–and failed to provide, then it could be guilty of failing to provide FAPE according to federal law.

Final Thoughts

Again, I do not know the details of the case. I do not know what the plaintiff or the school district did or tried before litigation began. There are always more than one side to the story, and it is equally possible the school district acted appropriately and inappropriately based on the information I currently know. However, I am glad the Supreme Court will issue a ruling and are looking at changing the language used in federal law. I am not glad because I feel the plaintiff deserves monetary compensation; rather, I am glad because higher standards are needed for public schools regarding special education services. It is wrong to assume the amount of knowledge a student can learn and what a student can achieve. People cry foul when that is done for neurotypical students all the time, yet agree with negative assumptions and stereotypes for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I can only hope that this Supreme Court decision will set higher standards for public schools and help advocate for best practices for individuals with developmental disabilities.

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