The Supreme Court will soon decide a case that is likely to dramatically change our country’s special education system. The Court is poised to decide whether school districts are required to provide disabled students with a meaningful education. That ruling, coupled with the priorities of Trump and his proposed education secretary Betsy DeVos (who is openly hostile to public schools), could be disastrous for children with disabilities.
The education rights of special needs students are protected by a federal law called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), which requires that children with disabilities have the right to a free and appropriate public education, just like everyone else. IDEA was originally enacted in 1975, and it was a game changer for disabled students. With IDEA, public schools were required to educate them, and if the school districts could not find a way to accommodate students’ disabilities, they were required to pay for schools that could. It was no longer permissible, for example, to just ignore a blind student in the back of the room and pretend that was good enough. IDEA also requires that schools offer disabled students a customized Individual Education Plan (“IEP”) to track and accommodate the students’ needs and help them achieve certain specific goals. For perspective, during the 2013-14 school year, 13% of the public school population received an IEP.
The case currently before the Supreme Court, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, asks what it means to provide a disabled child with a free and appropriate public education. The student at issue in the case, Drew, was a fourth grader with severe autism and ADHD. Drew was making little progress academically and had escalating behavioral issues in the public school. When moved to a private, specialized school, Drew thrived, but the District denied that it was required to pay for the specialized schooling. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the District, finding that as long as the child could potentially receive some educational benefit while in the district’s care, that was good enough, and the District was required to do no more. The court expressly rejected the idea that the District had to show that the student received an actual or “meaningful” educational benefit in public school. The prospect of some minimal benefit was good enough.
Drew’s case before the Supreme Court asks whether disabled students are entitled to more. The federal government, under the Obama administration, filed a brief supporting Drew and his parents. Is there anyone out there who thinks the new administration would support Drew? At her confirmation hearing, Trump’s nominee for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, seemed entirely ignorant of the existence of IDEA. Oblivious to the federal law, she argued that decisions about what sort of special education schools need to provide students should be left to the states. If the Supreme Court rules against disabled students in this case, it is nearly certain that neither DeVos nor Trump will help disabled children by ensuring that federal law makes it clear that IDEA requires schools to provide an actual, meaningful education to these children.
Whichever way this case goes, it will set the minimum standard for special education across the country. If the Supreme Court decides that, under the current version of IDEA, the bare minimum is good enough for disabled students, then that absolute minimum will be all that special needs students are entitled to through our federal government (though, of course, some districts and states can and will continue to do better than the bare minimum). And if the Supreme Court reverses the Tenth Circuit and finds that districts do have an obligation to provide all students with a meaningful education, school districts are going to need the funding to comply. Either way is likely to be revolutionary for students with disabilities. The only question is which way the revolution will go.