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The Supreme Court Rules In Favor Of A Special Education Student

U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the unanimous opinion in today's ruling.
Andrew Harnik
/
AP
U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the unanimous opinion in today's ruling.

School districts must give students with disabilities the chance to make meaningful, "appropriately ambitious" progress, the Supreme Court said Wednesday in an 8-0 ruling.

The decision in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District could have far-reaching implications for the 6.5 million students with disabilities in the United States.

The case centered on a child with autism and attention deficit disorder whose parents removed him from public school in fifth grade. He went on to make better progress in a private school. His parents argued that the individualized education plan provided by the public school was inadequate, and they sued to compel the school district to pay his private school tuition.

The Supreme Court today sided with the family, overturning a lower court ruling in the school district's favor.

The federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act guarantees a "free appropriate public education" to all students with disabilities. Today's opinion held that "appropriate" goes further than what the lower courts had held.

"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," read the opinion, signed by Chief Justice John Roberts.

The case drew a dozen friend of the court briefs from advocates for students with disabilities who argued that it is time to increase rigor, expectations and accommodations for all.

"A standard more meaningful than just above trivial is the norm today," wrote the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.

The ruling seems likely to increase pressure from families and advocates in that direction.

Significantly, Judge Neil Gorsuch, currently in confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court's vacant ninth seat, has repeatedly ruled the other way on similar cases.

IDEA's standard of a "free appropriate public education," reads Gorsuch's opinion in one of these cases, also about an autistic child in Colorado, "is not an onerous one." His precedent was directly contradicted by the Supreme Court this week.

Texas Sen. John Cornyn questioned him in light of this new ruling during his hearing, asking:

"Why ... did you want to lower the bar so low? "

Gorsuch responded that he had made a mistake. "I was wrong, Senator, because I was bound by circuit precedent, and I'm sorry."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.
Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.