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Supreme Court ruling boosts protections for students with disabilities

March 22, 2017
Unanimous decision overturns Colorado ruling that limited the resources provided to students with disabilities.

A unanimous U.S. Supreme Court has bolstered the rights of millions of students with disabilities in a ruling that requires public schools to offer special education programs that meet higher standards.

The Associated Press reports that the court's decision to require a more demanding test for measuring teh progress of special-education students has major implications for about 6.4 million disabled students who rely on special programs to make that happen.

Chief Justice John Roberts said that it was not enough for school districts to get by with minimal instruction for special-needs children. The school programs must be designed to let students make progress in light of their disabilities.

The ruling was released at the same time Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch was being questioned by senators at his confirmation hearing. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) pointed out that the high court had just rejected a standard that Gorsuch himself had used in a similar case that lowered the bar for educational resources provided to students with disabilities.

In its 20-page opinion, the Supreme Court sided with parents of an autistic teen in Colorado who said their public school did not do enough to help their son make progress. They sought reimbursement for the cost of sending him to private school.

The case helps clarify the scope of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires a "free and appropriate public education" for students with disabilities. Lower courts had ruled that programs with only minimal benefits met the law's requirements. But disability advocacy groups argued that schools must offer more than the bare minimum of services to children with special needs.

Roberts said the law requires an educational program "reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child's circumstances."

"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," Roberts said. "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."

School officials have cautioned that imposing higher standards could be too costly for some financially struggling districts. They also expressed concerns that it could lead parents to make unrealistic demands.

The case involved a boy who attended kindergarten through fourth grades in the Douglas County (Colo.) district. He was given specialized instruction to deal with his learning and behavioral issues.

But the boy's parents, after complaining about his lack of progress, decided in 2010 to send him to private school. They asked the school district to reimburse them for his tuition — about $70,000 a year — on the basis that public school officials weren't doing enough to meet their son's needs.

The Colorado Department of Education denied their claim, saying the school district had met the minimum standards required under the law. A federal appeals court in Denver upheld that decision.

About the Author

Mike Kennedy | Senior Editor

Mike Kennedy, senior editor, has written for AS&U on a wide range of educational issues since 1999.

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