Supreme Court Expands Educational Rights for Disabled Student

April 27, 2017

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous opinion, ruled on March 25, 2017, that schools must do more than just the bare minimum for students with disabilities. In the ruling, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote: “When all is said and done, a student offered an education program providing a ‘merely more than de minimis progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all.” Schools, the Court said, must provide disabled students with “an opportunity to make appropriately ambitious progress in line with the federal education law.” Chief Justice Roberts continued by citing a 1982 Supreme Court ruling on special education: “For children with disabilities, receiving an instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to ‘sitting idly … awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out.’”

According to Institute for Education statistics, there are more than 6 million students between the ages of 3 and 21 with disabilities. They represent nearly 13 percent of all students, yet only 65 percent of students with disabilities graduate from high school.

“I’m thrilled,” said Amanda Morin, a parent and advocate with the website, who was quoted by National Public Radio. “Now I can actually go into a school system and say, ‘The Supreme Court has said, based on my child’s abilities, he is legally entitled to make progress.’ “

The case, Endrew v. Douglas County School District, started with an autistic boy in Colorado named Endrew. The boy’s parents pulled him out of public school because they disagreed with his individualized education plan. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal law, schools must develop individualized learning plans for disabled students. Endrew’s parents believed that their child’s school was simply copying goals from year-to-year without much thought. They maintained that Endrew had been denied a “free appropriate public education” and they filed a lawsuit. Although the school district won the suit in a federal district court and won the appeal at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, the Supreme Court reversed the lower court rulings.

The high court, however, did not offer an educational formula for all disabled students. “We will not attempt to elaborate on what ‘appropriate’ progress will look like from case to case,” the court’s opinion states; rather, it depends on “the unique circumstances of the child.”

On the day of the ruling Mimi Corcoran, president and CEO of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, said in a statement. “Today is a good day for children with disabilities. The Court … soundly rejected the belief that just some small benefit is enough.”