Supreme Court of the United States.

Supreme Court Rules Schools Must Provide More Opportunities for Students With Disabilities


Lauren Appelbaum is the communications director of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities.

The Supreme Court ruled unanimously Wednesday in favor of higher educational standards for children with a disability in one of the most important education cases in decades.

The case, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, argued just how much educational benefit public schools must provide. While some lower courts had ruled the need for a “meaningful” educational benefit, others required only a bit more than de minimis – the bare minimum.

During the hearing, the Supreme Court discussed nine different levels of standards of education. They ruled unanimously (8-0) that schools must do more than provide “merely more than de minimis” education for students with a disability and instead provide them with the opportunity to make “appropriately ambitious” progress.

There are roughly 6.4 million students with disabilities between ages 3 to 21. Roughly 13 percent of all American students are students with disabilities, making this case important for a wide group of students.

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion, stating that a school must offer an individualized education program that is “reasonably calculated” for each child’s circumstance in order to meet its obligations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

“It cannot be right that the IDEA generally contemplates grade-level advancement for children with disabilities who are fully integrated in the regular classroom, but is satisfied with barely more than de minimis progress for children who are not,” the opinion read.

The “merely more than de minimis” language has been used in other special education cases in the lower courts, including by Judge Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court. Gorsuch answered questions on the new ruling during his hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday.

The Judge David L. Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, a national legal advocacy organization advancing the rights of people with mental disabilities, often advocates for students with disabilities to receive the educational opportunities other students receive.

Prior to the decision, Ira Burnim, Legal Director of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, said: “We hope that the Supreme Court will issue a decision in Endrew F. that recognizes that an ‘appropriate’ education for students with disabilities is one that reflects the expectations we have for all students.”

Each year nearly 400,000 students with disabilities leave school – almost 40 percent without a high school degree. Only 65 percent of students with disabilities complete high school, which is a key contributor leading to just 1-in-3 Americans with disabilities having a job, causing many people with disabilities to live a life of poverty.

This, in turn, leads to high costs of government benefits for those not working, plus the increased risk of falling into the school-to-prison pipeline. Indeed, there are more than 750,000 people with disabilities behind bars in our country today, most of whom are illiterate.

“As someone with a disability, who also knows what it means to parent a public school student with multiple disabilities, I am thrilled with this decision,” said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility, a nonprofit fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities. “School for students with disabilities today can be a disaster. Our family had to move so that our children could go to a great public school that does the right things for students with disabilities. However, most people do not have the flexibility to pick up and move to a different school district. Every child should have access to the education and skills they need to succeed. This Supreme Court decision can mean that students with disabilities can succeed, just like anyone else.”

In 1975, Congress passed a federal law requiring school districts to provide a “free appropriate public education” for children with disabilities, which includes individualized education plan (IEP) for students to be included in public schools. The law also provided federal funds for these services. The act was renamed IDEA in 1990. Unfortunately, IDEA has never been fully funded, leading to some school districts struggling to keep up.

Endrew F. (Drew), a boy with autism, was not improving in his public school, so his parents sent him to a private school where he progressed at a much quicker pace. Under IDEA, parents can receive tuition reimbursement from the school district if their child does not receive enough “educational benefit” from public schooling. Drew’s parents were denied, leading to this case.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, in Denver, ruled that the school district was required to provide Drew only with an education that gave him a “benefit” that was “merely more than de minimis” – and that the school district had done that. The Supreme Court accepted Drew’s parents’ challenge to that decision and ultimately rejected it.

In the Supreme Court, the Bazelon Center and the law firm Kellogg Huber Hansen filed a “friend of the court” or “amicus” brief on behalf of six former U.S. Department of Education officials responsible for implementing the IDEA. The brief explained that with advances in special education practice, the great majority of students with disabilities can perform as well in school as other students, and that schools across the country are implementing these practices today to help students with even significant disabilities, like Drew’s, achieve proficiency in math, language arts, science and other subjects. These educational advances, the brief argued, are the foundation for the changes Congress made to the IDEA in 1997 and 2004 to ensure that public schools provide students with disabilities the individualized instruction and supportive services they need to learn and meet the grade level standards to which other students are held.

“There is tremendous good news for employers and taxpayers in this decision as well because people with disabilities can also be tremendously talented,” Mizrahi added. “When they get the schooling they need, people with disabilities can bring unique insights, innovations, characteristics and talents to workplaces that benefit employers, staff and communities. CEO Charles Schwab is dyslexic, as is Richard Branson. Google, SAP and other employers have found that people with Autism can be gifted in STEM jobs. Also, companies like Walgreens, Walmart, AMC and Marriott – and healthcare and eldercare institutions – have found that hiring people with disabilities is a great talent recruitment strategy for onboarding loyal and successful employees. Scientist Stephen Hawking, a genius who is unlocking the secrets of the universe, and Sheldon Adelson, a Las Vegas billionaire and job creator, are both wheelchair users. Hotel magnate Steve Wynn is legally blind, and Arthur Young, the co-founder of Ernst & Young (now known as EY), was deaf. So this Supreme Court decision is great for our economy as well.”

Invisible disabilities can be just as life-affecting as visible disabilities. One-in-five people have brain-based learning and attention issues like dyslexia, ADHD and auditory processing disorder. Even though they are as smart as their peers, far too many experience failure early in school and begin a downward spiral that lasts a lifetime.

Individuals with disabilities also are largely underrepresented in higher education. There are 1.2 million people with disabilities ages 16-20 in the U.S. Among people age 25 and older in 2014, only 16.4 percent of those with a disability had completed at least a bachelor’s degree. In contrast to this, 34.6 percent of people with no disability had completed at least a bachelor’s degree in the same year.

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