How one Colorado boy with autism schooled the Supreme Court on public education for the disabled

Many parents heralded this year’s Supreme Court decision on Endrew F. v. Douglas County Schools as a victory over school districts in the perpetual struggle concerning the rights of students with disabilities.

Central to the case was the question of whether an Individualized Education Program is adequate. Known as the IEP, this program had been a source of constant dispute between parents and school officials since the inception of special education law.

Justices ruled unanimously for the parents of Endrew F., an autistic boy from Colorado. But characterizing Endrew as a clear win for parents would be a mistake.

Related: High schools fail to provide legally required education to students with disabilities

The court specifically rejected the parents’ arguments that attempted to train special education toward a more post-secondary focus.

The court specifically rejected the parents’ arguments that attempted to train special education toward a more post-secondary focus.

To be sure, it also rejected the school district’s arguments that attempted to set the bar for special education quite low. Regardless, parent-advocates should hesitate to “overreach” and leverage the case as a tool to make unreasonable demands, which may not accord with the Endrew holding and may only perpetuate a counterproductive “parent versus school” narrative.

Instead, Endrew is an invitation for both parents and school officials to return to the core of special education: designing an ambitious and feasible special education around a child’s particular needs and capacities.

To some observers, it may seem odd that it would take a court decision to reassert this common sense principle. Yet years of litigation concerning the adequacy of special education has obscured this focus because, in many cases, parents and schools view each other as opponents, rather than partners. Endrew can change that dynamic.

(By way of background, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees a child with a disability the right to a free,  appropriate public education (FAPE). A FAPE is operationalized through an Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP sets forth the special education needs, related services and intended goals and objectives for the student. It is a critical document.)

Related: The separate, unequal education of students with special needs

Endrew experienced considerable success. While Endrew was still at the private school, public school officials proposed another IEP. Again, Endrew’s parents rejected it because they felt it did not incorporate the private school programming that had proved successful and, instead, essentially mirrored the last proposed IEP.

In court, the district argued that their proposed IEPs were “reasonably calculated” to provide some benefit, as opposed to none. In the school’s view, this was an appropriate education under existing law.

Endrew’s parents argued for a higher standard that appeared to focus on post-secondary concepts. In their view, an appropriate education would provide “opportunities to achieve academic success, attain self-sufficiency, and contribute to society that are substantially equal to the opportunities afforded children without disabilities” (emphasis added).

The Court rejected both the parents’ and the school district’s arguments. Instead, it stated that an IEP should be “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s unique circumstances.” Notably, while the school district technically “lost,” the Court also did not adopt a characterization of special education that incorporated themes more oriented toward post-school life, as the parents had hoped.

However, Endrew should not be viewed in zero-sum terms. Rather, it represents significant opportunity for all involved going forward. For parents, Endrew rightfully requires that information brought by parents regarding what goals are achievable vis-vis a child must be accounted for in the IEP development process. In Endrew’s case that clearly did not occur; the school district ignored evidence of Endrew’s success at his private school.

Professional educators should (and must) embrace Endrew, as well. They have experience and particularized training that can help set ambitious — but achievable — programming.

The Supreme Court noted that it wants to defer to school officials’ specialized knowledge. Yet it also warned school officials that that expertise must be applied on a case-by-case basis. Put another way: the days of “cut and paste” IEP development are over. For the overwhelming majority of educators who entered teaching to help each and every child they encountered, Endrew only supports their professional roles. In that light, professional educators won.

Endrew sends a clear judicial message that both parent input and school officials’ professional judgment must be joined together in the interest of an individual child. Years of costly litigation may have blurred that concept, but Endrew offers the proverbial “reset.” If interpreted as a victory for all parties, it can provide a valuable point of common ground in the struggle to fulfill the promise of special education law.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our newsletter.

Mark Paige, J.D., Ph.D., is an assistant professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and author of Building a better teacher: Understanding value added models in the law of teacher evaluation.

The article was published at How one Colorado boy with autism schooled the Supreme Court on public education for the disabled