Sunday, April 2, 2017

Supreme Court Rules on IEPs

The Supreme Court has ruled on the case of Endrew F. vs. Douglas County School District, a case that gave the Supremes a chance to rule on just how much education is "enough."

The case was brought by the parents of Endrew F., an autistic student whose education was, according to his parents, not nearly enough. But Douglas County Schools (Colorado) took the position that they had provided "de minimis" which is what some folks believe the law requires and what they interpreted to mean "the absolute least we can get away with, even if it's not very much."

How Douglass decided to let itself get dragged all the way to the Supreme Court is beyond me, but once the case arrive, many many many people decided to chime in because the case potentially had huge repercussions for schools across the country.

The court decided the case unanimously, and in a mere sixteen pages. Chief Justice Roberts wrote the decision, and it doesn't hand a full win to either side, but it does provide some clarification for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) which will no doubt result in memos flying to and from special education directors across America.

Roberts referred back the case of Amy Rowley, centering on "starkly different understandings" of Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) and another case in which the parents and school disagreed; the court somewhat split the difference saying essentially that the district wasn't obliged to provide every single item that parents demanded, but it couldn't just slack off, either. He also notes that in Rowley, the court was deliberately avoiding inserting itself as an ultimate definer of educational programming.

In the case of Endrew, the parents had placed him in a private school after feeling he was stalled in the publics, and feeling that his IEPs were simply recycled same old same old. That was apparently even more problematic after the private school employed some strategies that helped with some of the behavior issues that had gotten in the way of his education (screaming, running away from school, extreme reactions to ordinary things like flies). Now the F's knew it could be done, and yet the school was proposing to repeat the same unproductive approaches of previous years. The Fs declined the school's attempt to woo them back, demanding instead that the private school tuition be paid by the district. And so here we are.

The District tried to cite Rowley, arguing that they couldn't promise a particular level of student achievement, and as long as there was progress of some sort, they had done their job.But Roberts says that Douglass cited the Rowley decision a little too precisely, setting select sentences free from their clarifying follow-ups. In the end, said Roberts, "We cannot accept the school district's reading of Rowley."

Roberts discusses at length IDEA's requirements for crafting an individualized program for the students, and notes that while the district says these are just procedural requirements, "the procedures are there for a reason." In other words, simply going through the motions of writing an IEP is not enough.

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. For children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to “sitting idly ... awaiting the time when they were old enough to ‘drop out.’”[the quote is from Rowley]. The IDEA demands more. It requires an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child's circumstances.

And there you have your Supreme Court definition of what IDEA requires.

Not that this was a win for the Fs, either. Their argument was that the IEP child should have the same opportunities and show the same basic progress as other students without special needs. Roberts rejects that as well, saying that the majority rejected that standard in Rowley as well. Roberts rejects defining FAPE as "the same as what all the other students are getting."

We will not attempt to elaborate on what “appropriate” progress will look like from case to case. It is in the nature of the [special education law] and the standard we adopt to resist such an effort: The adequacy of a given IEP turns on the unique circumstances of the child for whom it was created.

Roberts echoes Rowley in saying that the absence of any "bright-line rule" is not an invitation for other courts to substitute educational judgment for those of local education authorities. It is the education professionals who ultimately need to decide this stuff.

So, who won?

Well, for students with special needs, it's a confirmation by the Supremes that IDEA means districts can't just squeak by with de minimis, but must actually set out with a reasonably ambitious plan. For school districts, it' confirmation by the Supreme Court that educational experts are indeed the real authority on these matters, and the court should not substitute their own judgment for that of actual education professionals. Phew-- now if only the other two brnaches of government could get on board with that.

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