Supreme Court Rules Students with Disabilities Entitled to More than “de minimus” Education

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Earlier this month, history was made for the approximately 6.4 million students with disabilities in the United States. On March 22, the US Supreme Court announced its unanimous decision in Endrew F. vs. Douglas County School District, ruling that “schools must do more than provide ‘merely more than de minimis’” education for students with a disability. Instead, students must be provided “with opportunity to make ‘appropriately ambitious’ progression.”

Endrew Vs. Douglas County School District: A Summary

Endrew Vs. Douglas County School District has been acknowledged as one of the most important educational cases in decades. The case began when parents became concerned about the academic performance of their son Endrew, who has been diagnosed with autism and attention deficit disorder. Endrew had been enrolled in a public school in the Douglas County School District, and his parents noticed that he was making little to no progress from grade to grade in that school, despite the creation of a yearly Individualized Education Plan (IEP). When Endrew finished fourth grade, they decided to enroll him in a private school. Endrew exhibited significant academic progress in this new school, prompting his parents to sue the Douglas County School District for the cost of the private school’s tuition. They argued that the district failed to meet the requirements of free and appropriate public education (FAPE), under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Note: follow the link for a discussion of IDEA and special education.

In initial rulings, lower federal courts (including the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals) sided with the school district, stating that “all the school district had to do for Endrew was provide education and services that gave him a ‘merely more than de minimis’ benefit – and that Douglas County had done that(ii).” The family challenged that decision in the Supreme Court, arguing, “IDEA now requires public schools to ensure that students with disabilities receive a quality education that provides equal opportunities for academic achievement – the same high expectations for the achievement of students with disabilities that we have for all students. A “merely more than ‘de minimis’ benefit is not enough(iii).”

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the family on March 22, stating, “It cannot be right that the IDEA generally contemplates grade-level advancement for children with disabilities who are fully integrated in the regular classroom but is satisfied with barely more than ‘de minimis’ progress for children who are not.(iv)” In the ruling, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “ ‘When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing ‘merely more than de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all.’”

Implications of the Ruling

The ruling has been met with approval from advocates from across the country. Those in favor point to the “increase in the rights of students with disabilities” and the creation of a “nation-wide standard for special education” as positive outcomes that will help millions of students. In addition, this new ruling goes one step further by empowering parents, students, and advocates to fight for the educational rights of all students with disabilities. Lastly, the ruling is incredibly important in that it holds school districts as a whole accountable for ensuring that no child with special needs slips through the cracks.

Education is the first step on any path to success. In an article on the Respect Ability Report website, author Lauren Applebaum writes, “Each year 300,000 students with disabilities leave school – almost 40 percent without a high school degree. Only 65 percent of students with disabilities complete high school, which is a key contributor leading to just 1-in-3 Americans with disabilities having a job, causing many people with disabilities to live a life of poverty.”

As a nation, we need to ensure that students with disabilities are provided with the educational support and opportunities that they need to thrive and become successful, contributing members of society. Research has shown the economic and social benefits of employing individuals with disabilities – both to society as a whole and also in the lives of the individuals with a disability. We now need to ensure that individuals with disabilities are supported in their educational goals and dreams. The ruling in this case is an important step towards that goal.

For further discussion on the implications of this ruling and how it could affect special education in the United States, please click this link to read the article, How a New Supreme Court Ruling Could Affect Special Education.

Would you Like More Information?

Thanks for visiting our blog today. If you would like more information on this topic, please let us know! You may also wish to check out our blog archive for a discussion of special education, IDEA and FAPE.


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