A Message from the President Supreme Court Rules Favorably for Students with Disabilities

by Kim Charlson

For decades, educators, parents, and advocates have continued to say, with little impact, that the special education process, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, does not set up an environment where students with disabilities, more specifically, students who are blind or visually impaired, can have the opportunity for equal access and equal benefit to the general curriculum. Many court cases have been filed over the years challenging this notion, with many school districts arguing, and with many lower courts agreeing, that all that is required is that the student receive some appreciable benefit from the educational services provided.
In so many cases, we hear about students not receiving necessary services, and being passed from grade to grade, without the benefits of appropriate instructional materials to excel in classes, or not receiving any specialized services at all. Not to mention the vital services that should be provided from the expanded core curriculum, which includes orientation and mobility, assistive technology, self-advocacy, and so many other critical blindness skills for students to be successful.
On March 22, 2017, the Supreme Court ruled favorably in another case that can only be interpreted as an extremely positive victory for students with disabilities. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for a unanimous Supreme Court, held in the case of Endrew F., a minor, by and through his parents, Joseph F. et al. versus Douglas County School District in the United States Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, in order to meet its substantive obligation to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to a student with a disability, a school district must offer an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances. More specifically, the Supreme Court explained that:
“When a child is fully integrated in the regular curriculum, FAPE typically means providing a level of instruction reasonably calculated to permit advancement through the general curriculum. When a child is not fully integrated in the regular classroom and not able to achieve on grade level, the child’s educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his or her circumstances, just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most children in the regular classroom.”
In so holding, the Supreme Court explicitly rejected the standard of review adopted by the lower court that “a child’s IEP was adequate as long as it is calculated to confer an educational benefit that is merely more than de minimis.” De minimis is a legal term meaning that the issue is too trivial or minor to merit consideration, especially in law.
This Supreme Court ruling has clearly stated that showing or demonstrating some level of benefit from the educational services provided to a student is not sufficient to meet FAPE. For a school district to meet its obligations under IDEA, states, districts and schools must offer an IEP reasonably planned to enable a student to make progress appropriate for the child’s circumstances and abilities. Is this really a strong outcome?
According to Mark Richert, director of policy at the American Foundation for the Blind, “Advocates might say, ‘Well, this doesn’t sound very strong to me,’ and read out of context and without an understanding of how courts have interpreted IDEA over time, you’d be right. But I hope advocates will appreciate that this unanimous decision, that reversed a lower court’s usage of the ‘some benefit’ formula, sends a very powerful message throughout our entire special education system that says just doing something for students with disabilities isn’t nearly enough.”
Students should have every right to learn, excel and achieve their goals and dreams for the future. That’s what ACB’s advocacy for students who are blind is all about – making sure that our students do have a future, and this Supreme Court ruling will help just a little more to shift the balance for opportunity over expediency.
For more information about the case and ruling, see https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/16pdf/15-827_0pm1.pdf.