NDRN Weighs in on Supreme Court, Special Education Case

boy in wheelchair getting off school bus using the lift

by Andy Jones
December 8, 2016

The National Disability Rights Network filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court on November 22, in a case that could redefine the standard for how student progress is measured when determining whether schools are meeting their legal obligations toward special education students.

“For too long, too many children with disabilities have been held to low expectations,” said Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for NDRN and an author of the NDRN amicus brief, in a news release. “Students rights under the (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act) must reflect the high expectations we have for these children.”

Since its passage in 1975, most major litigation surrounding IDEA has focused on the procedural requirements that schools must follow to comply with the law. As to a substantive standard, however, IDEA specified that all special education students are entitled to a “free appropriate public education.”

The Supreme Court, in the 1982 case Board of Education v. Rowley, ruled that a school complied with this mandate by providing a student “some” educational benefit, rather than ensuring she received opportunities equal to that of her classmates.

While some circuit courts have adopted a higher “meaningful benefit” standard, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit of Appeals ruled in 2015 that a school met its burden by showing that a student had made “some progress” on the goals set forth in his Individual Education Plan.

The NDRN brief rejects the view that the Rowley decision created a single substantive standard, adding that the student in that case was unusually high functioning and not representative of the larger body of special education students.

Furthermore, NDRN argues that subsequent actions by Congress demonstrate a legislative intent to apply substantive, rather than just procedural, standards into IDEA.

Specifically, it points to 1997 amendments to IDEA, which among other changes, required schools to show in students’ IEPs that they were progressing within the school’s general curriculum. Furthermore, it highlights the focus on the 2004 amendments to IDEA, which brought the goals of IDEA in line with the testing and accountability structure created by the No Child Left Behind Act, updated last year via the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The full amicus brief, signed by 44 disability rights groups in total, can be read here [PDF].

Disability Rights Washington is the designated protection and advocacy agency in Washington, and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.