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Special Education and The Highest Court


The Supreme Court of the United States recently heard arguments in the case of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. This marks the first time the Supreme Court has heard a case involving disability law under the IDEA since the early 1980s. 


What’s at stake? The family of “Drew” placed their child unilaterally in a special education school contending that he was not receiving FAPE (free and appropriate public education) under the district’s proposed IEP and placement. The parent’s concern was based on their contention that he was only making minimal progress in the proposed setting.


The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in an attempt to resolve at least two key issues. One issue is the question of whether the school district is responsible for funding the placement. But the broader issue is the question of whether the IDEA was designed to insure that children make real progress, not minimal progress, with programs and services offered by school districts.


In my experience, the question of what constitutes “effective progress” is the core of most disputes between parents and school districts. As a psychologist, I have read study after study which support the notion of early and intensive intervention as a means of remediating many developmental, behavioral, and educational concerns. Although the research is clear, many school districts try to put off providing services until children are failing. When they do offer services, school districts tend to lean toward offering the minimum needed to allow a student to “get by” without necessarily closing the gaps in their skill development.


For example, in the case of a youngster with autism, his language, development, and cognitive skills are more than 4 years delayed such that he is 5 ½ functioning at an 18 month old level in most areas. The school district argues that, because his skills improved from the 9 month level to the 18 month level, he is making progress. The school believes that they are not required to close the gap further.  Yet, the gap in his functioning is so vast that he will need to make more progress annually in order to function at or near grade level. Unfortunately, the school district does not agree that they are required to educate students such that they are able to function on grade level. The result is that this child, and others like him, will flounder in the public school system. Sadly, the district is only providing services, such as speech and language therapy, once per week for 30 minutes, which is insufficient for closing the gap in his language skills. 


If the Supreme Court were to comment on the need for schools to provide programs and services which would allow students to make effective progress such that they close the gap in skill level, and are required to have students functioning on grade level within a defined time period, school districts would be obligated to provide the appropriate level of service for each disability.


It is reasonable to suggest that early and appropriate intervention is more cost effective to school districts than waiting to deliver services once children are failing. Insuring that children are closing the gap in skill development will mean that more people will be able to earn a living later in life and contribute to their communities rather than being a greater financial drain on public spending as they get older. It is less costly to educate one child adequately when they are young, than to provide housing, healthcare, and supervision for special needs adults who do not have skills to function and work independently.


Laws and regulations should be designed around the needs of the children not the expediency of the school district. With increasing numbers of children being diagnosed with special needs, school districts should be required to develop plans and programs such that all children have the opportunity to maximize their potential. The minimum standard, gained by setting the bar too low, not only leaves too many children failing but will cost society much more in the long run.


The Supreme Court will most likely provide a ruling this summer. This ruling has far reaching consequences and many of us who fight-the-good-fight on behalf of children with disabilities, will be waiting to see how the Court responds to Endrew.

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