Clients and colleagues often ask us to explain exactly what a public school district’s legal obligation is to students eligible for special education and related services. It is difficult to answer that question as states have different standards, and since federal judges, in multiple jurisdictions, have offered varied interpretations of those students.
The United States Supreme Court recently heard arguments on this very issue In the Matter of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. The Court’s difficult charge in that case is to determine if public entities are required to offer and provide eligible students with an education that allows for significant progress equal to that of typical children, or whether the district’s obligation is merely to offer a program that allows for some gains.
While the decision should provide improved guidelines regarding a district’s legal obligation, there will still be the same question in each impartial hearing as to whether a district met its obligation to an individual student. Even if the Supreme Court raises the bar, which, based on the discussion during oral argument, is a reasonable expectation, that does not necessarily mean that districts in places like New York and New Jersey will feel compelled to improve or increase programs and services for students. Most districts in the northeast will claim they are already providing excellent programs that exceed federal standards, and those districts likely believe the decision will not impact them.
Still, we are hopeful that a decision expanding student rights, and clarifying legal obligations, which is something that should have happened many years ago, will help students in underperforming regions, states and districts, and will force even the best districts to conduct a thorough review of their programs and make changes that will increase educational benefits for students with special needs.
We highly recommend you review the transcript of the oral arguments, which can be found here: https://www.supremecourt.gov/oral_arguments/argument_transcripts/2016/15-827_gfbh.pdf
The Supreme Court decision, dated March 22, 2017, can be found here: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/16pdf/15-827_0pm1.pdf
Lori M. Gaines’ lecture based on this case entitled Special Education Reconsidered at Monmouth University can be seen via Facebook here