From USA Today
By Richard Wolf
September 29, 2016
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court agreed Thursday to decide what standard of education schools must provide to students with disabilities.
The case presents the court with the difficult task of determining whether school districts receiving federal funds must offer a "substantial" education or merely make an effort to educate children under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, originally passed in 1990.
The law requires that students with disabilities receive "a free appropriate public education" through an individualized education program, or IEP, designed for each student. About 6.5 million such programs are written each year, but federal appeals courts are divided on the level of education that must be provided.
The federal government had recommended that the justices hear the case to resolve the circuit split and is siding with the student and family involved. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, the government says, erred in deciding that schools need to provide only a "de minimus" educational benefit.
Lawyers for Endrew F., a Douglas County, Colorado student with autism, argue in court papers that the IDEA law is interpreted differently from one school district to the next. A consistent standard, they say, would help not only students and families but school officials.
"Resolving the conflict among the circuits will ensure that millions of children with disabilities receive a consistent level of education, while providing parents and educators much-needed guidance regarding their rights and obligations," their request for a hearing states.
Throughout the country, thousands of dissatisfied parents and guardians have battled school districts for decades over what they considered inadequate efforts to educate children with disabilities. Many students have been moved from public to private schools, and parents often go to court seeking tuition reimbursement based on the public schools' alleged failure to educate their children.
In Endrew's case, court papers contend that behavioral problems in elementary school interfered with his ability to learn, but the school district offered only the same basic IEP each succeeding year. His parents' effort to get funding was rejected by a hearing officer and two lower courts; the federal appeals court said the public school district need only offer an education that is "more than de minimus."
The school district argues that the dispute boils down to semantics. It rejects the challengers' claim that in some parts of the country, courts have approved "just-above-trivial" educational benefits. Rather, the district says, the difference is between "some" and "meaningful" benefits -- whatever that means.
"Simply choosing an adjective ... resolves little," the school district says.