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SCOTUS to decide important special education case - II

In our previous post, we discussed how the Supreme Court of the United States recently heard oral arguments in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, an important education law case that will have profound implications for school districts and the roughly 6.7 million children with disabilities across the U.S.

Specifically, we spent some time examining the Individuals with Disabilities Act, or IDEA, the historic federal law that makes federal funding for schools contingent upon the provision of a "free appropriate public education" -- or FAPE -- to all children with disabilities.

In the Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, the plaintiff, referred to as "Drew," was diagnosed with both attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism, and previously attended public school in Douglas County, Colorado through the fourth grade.

During this time, Drew's parents and the school district agreed upon IEPs at the start of each academic year. However, after a challenging year in the fourth grade, his parents became dissatisfied with his education, particularly the IEP, which they saw as being the same heading into the fifth grade.

Drew's parents subsequently removed him from the public school system and enrolled him in a private school geared toward providing education for autistic students where they say has experienced great success.

As was their right under federal law, they filed a lawsuit against the school district for reimbursement of the cost of the private school, needing to demonstrate that the Douglas County School District failed in its efforts 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 the judges held that the legal standard to be applied was whether the IEP devised conferred "some educational benefit." In other words, whether the IEP provided "more than de minimis," meaning minimal or more than nothing.

The judges here found that this standard was met by the Douglas County School District.

“It is not the [school] district’s burden to pay for his placement [in the private school] when Drew was making some progress under its tutelage," reads the 10th Circuit opinion. "That is all that is required.” 

Given that other appellate circuits -- 3rd, 5th and 6th -- have held that IEPs must provide a "meaningful educational benefit," SCOTUS agreed to hear the matter to resolve this split among the courts.

The core argument advanced by the plaintiffs at oral arguments earlier this month was essentially that the IDEA's requirement that all disabled children be provided with a "free appropriate public education" is only satisfied where all children -- disabled and non-disabled alike --are given substantially equal opportunities for academic success.

The Justice Department, which supported the parents in the lawsuit, stopped short of this strict standard, calling instead for the adoption of the aforementioned "meaningful educational benefit" standard.

For their part, lawyers for Douglas County School District argued that the 10th Circuit's interpretation was correct.

While it remains to be seen what the nation's high court will decide, experts indicated that the justices appeared to favor a sort of middle ground in which a slightly higher standard enabled disabled students to make measured progress. They also pointed out how the justices voiced concerns that adoption of too strict of a standard could cause education costs to skyrocket and lawsuits to multiply.

Stay tuned for updates on this incredibly important case …

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

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