The Supreme Court Just Ruled in Favor of a Special Education Student

They said schools must offer more than the bare minimum in educational benefits to disabled children, setting aside a lower court ruling that had found the school district had satisfied federal law by doing so.

"De minimis" means "so minor as to merit disregard" in Latin, so in layman's terms, Gorsuch's decision essentially concluded that schools needed to merely provide a little more than nothing to meet the appropriate educational standard for students with disabilities.

It didn't take long for news of the U.S. Supreme Court's decision expanding the rights of special education students to travel across the street to the Hart Senate Office Building, where Judge Neil M. Gorsuch was having his confirmation hearing for a seat on the court. Chief Justice Roberts wrote for the court, "i$3 t can not 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". Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the opinion declaring that curriculum for a student in special education classes "must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances".

"All I can tell you is my job is to apply the law you write", Gorsuch said.

Gary Mayerson, a board member of the advocacy organization Autism Speaks, said that the timing of the decision "couldn't be better", as it comes just before the spring season when many schools draw up individual education plans for students with disabilities. They removed Endrew from public school and enrolled him in a private school, Firefly Autism House. Under IDEA, if a school can't meet the "free and appropriate" standards for a student, the family can seek reimbursement of private-school expenses, which is what the family in this case did. The ruling has the potential to alter educational services provided to millions of children around the country, and the costs of those services to the many more millions of taxpayers who fund them. School officials had cautioned that imposing higher standards could be too costly for some cash-strapped districts. Durbin, D-Illinois, asked.

Durbin also said Gorsuch had ruled against disabled students in eight out of 10 cases dealing with the IDEA. The Perkins family argued that the Boston school had produced "astounding progress" for their son and that remaining in the Thompson School District would have caused him to regress.

"It can not 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 achievement levels of students in special education are among the lowest in Alabama, on par with children who are just beginning to learn the English language.

Lewis Bossing of the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, which opposes Gorsuch's nomination, called the high court's ruling, a "clear unanimous reversal of a standard that Judge Gorsuch has articulated and endorsed".

Nonetheless, disability advocates hailed the ruling as a victory.

Gorsuch said he finds it "wonderfully reaffirming" that there's a body like the Supreme Court that resolves situations like these in which federal courts disagree. He said it would lead to schools more carefully tracking the progress of special needs students.

It's not often that a unanimous Supreme Court decision on special education makes national headlines.

  • Larry Hoffman