By Ashley Sizemore, Staff Attorney, Special Education Unit, New York Legal Assistance Group
Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously found that a student with disabilities who makes merely “more than de minimis” educational progress has not received an appropriate education under federal law. In the case, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, the Supreme Court evaluated the level of educational progress guaranteed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), clarifying and increasing protections for students with disabilities across the country.
Over 13 percent of students nationwide, and 19 percent of students attending New York City Public Schools, experience some form of disability that negatively impacts their participation within the classroom. These disabilities affect students in variety of ways, and may be academic (such as a learning disability), emotional (such as depression), or behavioral (such as a conduct disorder). As a result, students with disabilities require a wide variety of educational supports—which frequently differ from traditional educational models.
The IDEA provides critical protections for students with disabilities, including the right to a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) from the ages of three to 21. Over the past three decades, federal district and appellate courts have struggled to define what a “free appropriate public education” means for students with disabilities—a student population with a wide variety of educational needs that require uniquely tailored educational programs. For example, some courts previously found that a student with a disability receives a free appropriate public education when that student makes “more than de minimis” educational progress, while other courts have rejected this argument, and found that students are entitled to a more substantial level of progress.
In Endrew F., the Supreme Court evaluated the level of educational progress made by an elementary school student diagnosed with autism. The Court explained that despite Endrew’s “sweet disposition,” he suffered from serious behavioral challenges that negatively impacted his ability to learn within the classroom. For example, “Endrew would scream in class, climb over furniture and other students, and occasionally run away from school,” behaviors that were complicated by “severe fears of commonplace things like flies, spills, and public restrooms.”
Endrew’s parents, increasingly concerned about their son’s educational development, turned to the school district for guidance. They felt that their son could not make academic or behavioral progress under his current educational program, which the district agreed to review. The district provided Endrew’s parents with an updated program, which was nearly identical to previous programs that failed to meet their son’s educational needs. Concerned about Endrew’s development, his parents enrolled him in a specialized private school for students with autism. There, Endrew received critical educational supports, and made significant academic and social-emotional progress.
Like Endrew, many students with disabilities are unable to make academic or social-emotional progress without specialized supports. In New York City, the Department of Education offers these students a “continuum” of special education services to meet students’ educational, emotional, and behavioral needs. Unfortunately, this “continuum” is often unable to effectively educate students with disabilities. If, after cooperating with the public school district, a parent finds that the district is unable to meet their child’s needs, they may enroll their child in a specialized private school and request tuition from the public school system.
However, parents, advocates, and educators have struggled to evaluate whether a program is “appropriate” under the IDEA. This lack of clarity regarding the FAPE standard has put parents in an emotionally and financially challenging situation, as they struggle to identify which services will (1) allow their child to make educational progress and (2) constitute a FAPE under federal law.
Although the March 22 decision by the Supreme Court purposefully declines to provide a definitive answer regarding the requisite amount of progress, it does clarify that students’ progress must be “markedly more demanding than the ‘merely de minimis’ test applied by [many courts].” As a result, school districts cannot look to minimal progress and argue that a student with a disability has received a FAPE under the IDEA.
Although the Supreme Court chose not to articulate a specific level of educational benefit owed to students with disabilities, its decision is a substantial victory for students and families. And while more must be done to protect students with disabilities and ensure access to educational programs that are as effective as those for students without disabilities, the Court’s most recent decision is a significant step in the right direction.