Supreme Court raises standard for educating students with special needs
Thursday, March 30, 2017
A Supreme Court ruling last week that raised the bar on special education requirements isn’t expected to have much immediate impact in Oregon.
Education advocates say most districts in Oregon are already trying to meet the standard laid out in the unanimous Supreme Court ruling, but the ruling does give Oregon parents extra leverage when advocating for more rigorous goals for students with special needs.
Federal law guarantees a “free appropriate public education” to all children. In Endrew F. v. Douglas County (Colo.) School District, the court said students with special needs are entitled to an education program that enables them to make “appropriately ambitious” progress. The ruling rejected a lower court standard that said even a minimal amount of “educational benefit” is sufficient.
“The Endrew decision confirms what most districts across Oregon believe and practice: All students, regardless of ability, deserve ‘the chance to meet challenging objectives,’” said Spencer Lewis, OSBA member services attorney. “No student can be expected to succeed when the standard is ‘merely more than de minimis.’”
Special education covers specifically defined challenges to learning that include intellectual, vision, hearing and emotional disabilities. School staff, with input from parents, create an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, that includes educational goals and necessary accommodations.
Oregon cases are not usually about districts trying to provide “de minimus” progress in an IEP, said Joel Greenberg, an attorney with Disability Rights Oregon. Instead, Oregon cases are more often about how much progress is actually being made.
“Endrew emphasizes that appropriate progress should be based on individual circumstances,” Greenberg said. “Endrew F. clarifies that districts must review the ability of each child in order to determine an acceptable level of progress. They can’t just say, for instance, that a child with an intellectual disability should be expected to perform far below grade in every area.”
Endrew gives parents a stronger rebuttal if a district tries to say that minimal progress or no progress at all is “good enough,” according to Greenberg.
Oregon Department of Education policy already supports a well-rounded and appropriate education for students with special needs, but in practice that can be a challenge, especially in rural districts.
An appropriate education for students with special needs requires staff with specialized training. Oregon schools already face budget shortfalls that limit their ability to add staff time, and for many districts, staff with the needed training aren’t readily available.
As views of education change, advocates are running into fewer problems with attitudes against spending money to educate students with special needs, but they still exist.
“There are still programs that believe a student with cognitive disabilities should be trained solely in life skills,” said Roberta Dunn, executive director of FACT Oregon, an advocacy group for families dealing with disabilities. Dunn stressed that every student deserves a well-rounded education.
Dunn says the problem often comes with lowered expectations that don’t account for all of a student’s abilities. Some programs try to cluster children with similar cognitive deficits or diagnoses, she said, but this does not recognize that a student who might be lagging behind peers in one area can still maintain or exceed peer work in another area.
“This case might have some opportunity for parents who have felt artificial ceilings were being placed over their children and that they will be able to advocate for more rigorous goals for their sons and daughters,” Dunn said.
Judge Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s nominee for the open seat on the U.S. Supreme Court, wrote the precedent that the Endrew case struck down.