Supreme Court Rules Unanimously In Favor of Autistic Student

Mar 23, 2017

On March 22, 2017, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously in favor of a disabled student, expanding the meaning of a “free appropriate public education” under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Background

A mother and father in Colorado wanted a public education for their autistic son, Endrew.  Eventually, Endrew’s parents pulled him out of public school and enrolled him in a private school.  They were concerned that the public elementary school was not providing enough support to help Endrew progress academically.  Endrew’s parents felt that the only threshold that the school wanted Endrew to meet was to attend class, but that beyond mere presence he was not being provided with support to advance.  After enrolling in the private school, Endrew began to progress.

As a result, Endrew’s parents requested that the local public school district reimburse the private school tuition, claiming that Douglas County School District did not provide Endrew with a “free appropriate public education” as required by the IDEA, which has been in place since 1975.  The school district refused, resulting in a lawsuit.

The Supreme Court’s Decision

An administrative law judge, a federal judge, and the 10th United States Circuit Court of Appeals all sided with the school district.  Those rulings found that the IDEA only requires that public schools provide “some educational benefit” and that the school met that standard with Endrew.  The Supreme Court overturned the prior rulings.

In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote:

It cannot be right that the IDEA generally contemplates grade-level advancement for children with disabilities who are fully integrated in the regular classroom, but is satisfied with barely more than de minimus progress for children who are not.”

The opinion went on to say:

When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing ‘merely more than de minimus’ 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 Court declined to define “appropriate” progress, as each child and each situation is different.  Specifically, the Court said the IDEA is intended to focus on the “unique circumstances of the child for whom it was created.”  With this new Supreme Court decision in hand, advocates for disabled students nationwide will have a new tool to ensure that those students receive a public education that will truly educate and allow students to progress.

You can read the full opinion here: Supreme Court Opinion

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