Here's how the recent SCOTUS ruling will affect milkids with special needs

By Meg Flanagan

With their March 22 decision, the Supreme Court has ensured that special education students receive a “meaningful” free appropriate public education. The ruling in Endrew F. vs. Douglas County School District was a unanimous 8-0 decision, leaving no doubt about the direction special education needs to follow going forward.

Who is Endrew?

Endrew is a minor residing in Douglas County, CO. He had been enrolled in public schools and had an individualized education plan (IEP). Endrew had previously been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and ADHD. Children diagnosed with one or both of these conditions often experience difficulty with communication, socialization, attention, academics, and the ability to control words and movements.

According to the case brief, Endrew’s parents removed him from public school in fifth grade. His IEP was virtually unchanged from fourth to fifth grade, and he had made little to no significant progress toward achieving its goals. Endrew’s parents enrolled him in a private school that specializes in ASD and ADHD prior to starting fifth grade. After receiving specialized education and treatments, he made significant progress toward these same goals.

Endrew’s parents were paying for the private school themselves. According to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), if a school is unable to provide a free appropriate publication education (FAPE) then the school must pay to enroll the child into another school that can.

Endrew’s parents sued Douglas County Schools on the basis of a FAPE violation. The parents claimed that Douglas County failed to provide an education that met their son’s needs. The school did not provide behavior therapies or academics that allowed Endrew to make progress at a basic level, nevermind an equal education designed to help him succeed in school like any other child.

The school claimed that they had met their obligations under the law of a de minimus education. Essentially, because Endrew had made a small amount of progress toward his goals, he had gained some benefit from the IEP and the education the school provided.

At the center of this case: What level of education does a public school have to provide in order to meet the FAPE requirement of IDEA? If a student is making even minimal progress, is that enough?

What the SCOTUS ruling means

By ruling in favor of Endrew, SCOTUS has determined that public schools must provide a rigorous education for students receiving special education services. Schools must provide students with an “appropriately ambitious” education.

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

This reading of previous case law and application to Endrew is important to all students in special education. It states, clearly, that students fully integrated into the typical classroom must have IEPs designed to ensure their successful completion of grade level work and progress to the next grade with their peers. Students who are not fully integrated, receiving services outside of the typical classroom for some or all of the school day, now must also receive education designed to help progress them at their level.

What does it mean for military families?

In the general population, there are approximately 6.4 million students enrolled in special education services. This amounts to 13 percent of the total student population, from ages 3 to 21.

According to a 2014 report from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHHD), there are 2 million military children enrolled in school. Of this population, approximately 20 percent are enrolled in special education.

Students with special education needs represent a significant number of military children. These children also move more frequently, making identification and assessment for special education services challenging. Moving so often can also present a challenge in implementing existing IEPs. There are differences in services available district to district, or different interpretations of results. As a result, according to the Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC), 58 percent of schools reported difficulties with meeting the needs of military children with special needs.

The SCOTUS ruling essentially holds schools more accountable, especially when it comes to military children. Because schools now must provide IEPs that help students advance with an appropriately ambitious education, schools serving military kids need to take extra time to make sure they are meeting this standard.

Parents also now have more leverage when it comes to negotiating services and placements for special education students. The right to disagree with a proposed IEP–or even refuse to sign–was always there. Parents also have the right, as demonstrated in this case, to take school districts to court over improper implementation of IEPs. These rights just became much stronger, with schools being held to higher standards.

When combined with the Military Interstate Children’s Compact Commission (MIC3) agreements, Endrew will help parents ensure the correct placement of children with IEPs. MIC3 requires that schools place children with existing IEPs in classrooms or in services that are comparable to their last school. Endrew now allows parents to push harder for students to get services. Parents also now have more pull to request outside placement–like private school–should a school not meet their child’s needs.

For example, if a student moves from a district that was providing applied behavioral analysis (ABA) services to a school without an ABA provider, parents should be questioning that. They can push for the school to provide these services, or they can push for the district to send their child to a school that does provide ABA. This is especially true if parents can provide proof that ABA services are benefiting their child and providing an appropriately ambitious education or service.

This premise can be expanded to other areas of special education and related services.

The bottom line

At a minimum, this ruling raises the standards of special education services provided by public schools. It ensures that all students will receive a rigorous education. For military families, it can help during transitions to ensure that necessary services are continued from duty station to duty station.