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Update: SCOTUS decides important special education case

Our blog previously discussed how the Supreme Court of the United States was considering Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, a case examining the scope of the Individuals with Disabilities Act, which makes federal school funding contingent upon the provision of a "free appropriate public education" -- or FAPE -- to all disabled children.

In recent developments, the nation's high court published its decision in this case earlier today, making a ruling that will have serious implications for both school districts and millions of children with disabilities across the U.S.

To recap, the case revolved around a young boy named "Drew" diagnosed with both attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism who attended public school in Douglas County, Colorado through the fourth grade.

While his parents agreed upon individualized education programs offered by the school district, they became dissatisfied with his progress after a challenging year in the fourth grade, ultimately deciding to enroll him in a private school geared toward autistic students.

They later filed a federal lawsuit against the school district for reimbursement of the cost of the private school, needing to prove that the Douglas County failed to provide Drew with an "appropriate" education.

The case ultimately made its way before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, where it was held that the legal standard to be applied was whether the IEP conferred "some educational benefit," or "more than de minimis," (i.e., more than nothing). Using this standard, Douglas County was found to have met its duty.

SCOTUS ultimately agreed to hear the case owing to the uncertainty among the lower courts as to which standard should be applied in assessing IEPs -- more than de minimis or "meaningful educational benefit" -- the latter of which was advanced by the 3rd, 5th and 6th appellate circuits.

In its decision issued Wednesday, the justices unanimously sided with the parents of Drew in holding that IDEA's FAPE requirement does indeed compel school districts to do more than the minimum.

The opinion, drafted by Chief Justice John Roberts, argues that IDEA requires educational programs "reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child's circumstances."

While he stopping short of articulating what exactly this progress would resemble, saying it depended on the unique circumstances of each case, he did indicate that deference should be given to school officials in this area.

"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," reads the opinion. "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."

While the decision is being lauded by education advocates across the nation, others are expressing concern that it will cause education costs to skyrocket for already struggling school districts and parent lawsuits to multiply.

What are your thoughts?

If you are a parent with concerns over the IEP being offered for your special needs child, consider speaking with a skilled legal professional to learn more about your options.

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