This week, the Supreme Court heard testimony challenging the Free Appropriate Public Education clause which was established in 1975 under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). To understand the case, a little background information may help.
In 1975, the government passed the IDEA mandating every student was entitled to a free appropriate public education. This led the way to students with disabilities having their academic needs met (by way of Individual Education Programs or IEP’s). If a school could not provide this, then parents who opted to send their children elsewhere to get their academic needs met could apply for reimbursement. One of the conditions was the student getting meaningful benefit from the school. Currently there are 6.7 million children with disabilities attending public schools inn the US.
The plaintiff, Endrew F. vs. Douglas County, CO School District, is asking the court to clearly define what is meant by a meaningful benefit. By the time he reached 4th grade, Endrew (Drew) began to deteriorate academically and behaviorally. His parents insisted there were new methods of instruction for autistic children that were meeting with much success. These methods were not being used in his public school placement. They transferred Drew to a private school for children with autism where over time Drew showed signs of improvement. So the parents sought reimbursement from the public school.
The argument facing the court is how much progress is enough to show the benefits of the private school, and how much is the district accountable regarding reimbursement? The school district is arguing that IDEA doesn’t “prescribe the level of education to be accorded handicapped children.”
In 1982 there was a precedent setting case of a young girl who was hard of hearing and under IDEA was provided with hearing aids but not an interpreter. That was determined to be meaningful benefit.
What’s at stake with this decision? Clearly the long term ramifications of the court’s decision could severely impact schools and children with disabilities. With school districts facing decreased education funding, a decision supporting Douglas County School District could negatively impact special education students across the country. The district argues if the Supreme Court decides in favor of the student and his family, they should also consider that the federal budget for special services in public schools (under IDEA) should also increase as this will be a precedent setting case.
A deeper definition of free appropriate public education is in the hands of the court. Experts, observers, and attorneys are confident the court will rule in favor of the plaintiff, but just exactly how the definition will differ from its current status of meaningful benefit remains to be seen.
These are my reflections for today.