Supreme Court Considers Important Special Education Issue

Friday, January 13, 2017

scotus-seal 10830258The United States Supreme Court is trying to determine exactly what level of benefit a public school is required to provide to its students with disabilities in order to comply with the Federal IDEA. Does a school have to show that each student is making “substantial progress?” Or “meaningful progress?”

Since this case has such great importance, there are many parties involved in arguing this matter before the Court—amicus briefs have been filed by many groups on both sides, and all seem to offer different standards, such as modest progress, more than di minimus progress, significant progress toward grade-level standards, as close as possible to grade-level standards, substantially equal educational opportunities to typical children…the list goes on. Justice Samuel A. Alito, Jr. calls the case a “Blizzard of Words.”

The truth is, no matter what word(s) the Court lands on, it could be difficult to define and quantify, as all of the terms that have been offered up so far are subjective. One school district or court’s interpretation of the word “significant” may fall on the opposite end of the spectrum from the next. Progress is very difficult to quantify, and that’s the continuing struggle.

In IEP meetings with my clients, there are often disagreements over whether the student is making progress. The district will argue that progress is being made, citing passing marks on his or her assignments, or advancement into the next grade. The family is convinced otherwise, pointing to progress reports that show only a 2% improvement on an IEP goal over an entire school year, and perhaps goals that are beneath the child or repeated year after year.

Some of the Justices are also questioning what financial burdens might be placed upon school districts if the progress measurement shifts from “some educational benefit” to “meaningful educational benefit.” Costs of private, specialized education can fall in the $70,000 range for a single year. Some wonder how districts will be able to afford this, while proponents of the “meaningful benefit” standard argue that there is no room in the IDEA law to consider cost: if the student needs it in order to receive a FAPE (free appropriate public education), the school district must provide it. As the law is written, that is certainly the case. But again…what level of progress is required to constitute FAPE?

The decision is not expected to be rendered until June… so we’ll have to wait and see.

For more information see:

Justices Face 'Blizzard of Words' in Special Education Case

Supreme Court to decide: What level of education do public schools legally owe to students with disabilities?

Appeal from The United States District Court for the District of Colorado (D.C. NO. 1:12-CV-02620-LTB)

- Posted by Attorney Linda Gorczynski

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