Supreme Court Hears Case Impacting Special Education: What’s at Stake & Where NCLD Stands

Written by Meghan Casey Whittaker, Policy & Advocacy Manager | 3 years ago

NCLD believes that all students with disabilities should have every opportunity to succeed.  A key part of student success is making sure schools set high expectations to help students achieve their full potential. But the law isn’t clear on exactly how much of a benefit schools must provide to students with disabilities.

On January 11th, the Supreme Court will hear arguments on this question: is a small educational benefit enough? Or should schools provide something more so that students can make meaningful progress? The case is Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, and though it’s based on what has happened for one student, Drew, and his family, it will impact millions of other students throughout the nation.

Here’s what you need to know:

Under IDEA, eligible students with disabilities are entitled to special education and related services that provide a free, appropriate public education (FAPE). However, the law does not define what “appropriate” means.

In Endrew, Drew’s parents felt he wasn’t making enough progress on his IEP goals and his behavior challenges were not being addressed in his public school. Once Drew enrolled in a private school where he received behavior therapy, he began making more progress. Drew’s parents are arguing that he did not receive FAPE from the public school because he was not making progress and benefiting from the education he received the way other students do.

The school, on the other hand, argued that the little progress Drew was making was enough. They believe that a small educational benefit is all that the law requires under FAPE.

The case has been making its way through local and state courts for years and has now reached the Supreme Court of the United States.

Here’s where NCLD stands:

NCLD made its position clear – that schools must provide an “appropriate education” to students with disabilities that is meaningful – by signing an amicus brief with 43 other organizations who represent individuals with disabilities, including the National Disability Rights Network and the Learning Disabilities Association of America.

Over the last 34 years, Congress, educators and the Department of Education have consistently learned more about what students with disabilities are capable of when they receive the supports they need. As a result of this progress, the field has consistently raised the expectations for what they can accomplish.  To demonstrate this point, NCLD and other supporters of Endrew’s family cite:

  • The 1997 amendments to IDEA which required schools to include measureable goals and specific objectives for the student’s progress toward that goal in a student’s IEP, with the purpose of ensuring students are “involved in and progress in the general curriculum;”[1]
  • The 2001 passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which required states to establish challenging academic state standards and apply them to all students;
  • The 2004 reauthorization of IDEA which required states to ensure that students with disabilities are held to the same educational standards as their peers without disabilities, which means being included in statewide assessments with appropriate accommodations, and creating and offering alternate assessments for students with significant cognitive disabilities that are aligned with the state’s challenging academic standards;
  • The 2016 passage of the Every Student Succeed Act (replacing NCLB) which clarified and affirmed that students with disabilities must be held to the same challenging state academic standards as all students; and
  • The Department of Education’s adoption of IDEA, NCLB, and ESSA regulations that reflect high expectations for students and call for students with disabilities to meet high standards and receive equal educational opportunities.

In addition, in 2015, NCLD was thrilled to see the U.S. Department of Education release a letter regarding FAPE. This letter makes clear that, in order to meet FAPE, a student’s IEP goals must be tied to grade-level content standards and must set ambitious goals for student progress in the general education curriculum.

Over the last 40 years, we have seen expectations for students steadily rise, and we have consequently seen student performance improve to meet those expectations when students are provided the supports and services they need. Now is not the time to retreat from that progress.

What to expect next:

On January 11th, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. Following the arguments, will host a live Facebook event in front of the Supreme Court and will speak with Jack Robinson, the attorney for Endrew’s family.

The argument will not be broadcast and cameras are not allowed in the Supreme Court, but you can read a transcript of the oral arguments provided on the Supreme Court’s website on Jan. 11th or you can listen to an audio recording later in the week.

The Supreme Court is expected to make its decision in the spring or early summer of this year. This important case will be a turning point for special education and will impact the millions of students with disabilities in our schools across the nation.

We cannot afford to set a low bar for our students. We, as parents, educators, and advocates, must foster the talent, creativity, and promise of every student with a disability.


[1] Pub. L. No. 105-17 § 101, 111 Stat. at 84 (new § 614(d)(1)(A)(ii)(I))