Supreme Court Special Ed Decision Leaves Questions Unanswered

By Cora A. Alsante, Esq.

A recent decision by the United States Supreme Court regarding Individualized Education Plans (IEPs) has been widely praised.  The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees “free appropriate public education” to students with disabilities.  The definition of “appropriate,” however, was at issue.  The Supreme Court unanimously ruled that in order to meet the statutory standard, school programs must aim for more than “some” academic improvement by students with special needs.  While this is a step in the right direction, the Supreme Court failed to establish a clear standard, leaving it to future court battles to completely resolve the issue.

The case, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District RE-1, involved a student with autism who failed to achieve measurable progress under the IEP developed by his public school.  His parents, contending that the IEP was not designed to achieve “meaningful educational benefit,” moved their son to a private school for students with autism where he improved considerably.  The family then sued the public school district for reimbursement of the private school tuition. The Supreme Court sided with the family, overturning lower court rulings in favor of the school district.

The unanimous opinion, authored by Chief Justice Roberts, summed up the Court’s findings by declaring that a student’s “educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances” and that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”

It is noteworthy that the Court rejected the plaintiff’s more far-reaching demand that students with special needs be provided with opportunities “to achieve academic success, attain self-sufficiency, and contribute to society that are substantially equal to the opportunities afforded children without disabilities.”

Questions Remain

Under the Court’s ruling, the case now goes back to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals to decide how it should be handled under the newly articulated standard.  No longer will a school district be able to point to one or two items in a list where a student is showing progress, but will have to make an assessment of the student’s overall progress under the circumstances. The Court indicated that school districts, along with parents, must determine what constitutes an acceptable IEP.  They did not, however, address whether or not the school district in this case met the new standard.  As the school’s attorney said, “We look forward to proving to the lower courts that the IEP meets the new, higher standard.”  This sentiment has been echoed by other school representatives, who contend that most districts are already surpassing the newly defined standard.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, there are about 6.6 million students, or 13 percent of all public school students, who qualify for special education services. The higher IEP standard would have significant cost implications for school districts needing to provide additional services beyond those already offered to their special education students.  Under the IDEA, the federal government is supposed to cover 40 percent of such costs, but it currently pays less than half that.  As school districts juggle their budgets to meet the new standard established by the Supreme Court, it is likely that IEP debates and courtroom battles on this issue are far from over.



  1. nadia August 3, 2017 at 10:24 pm

    Education is very important to make people with disabilities capable of being successful without government assistance and yet the system is still neglecting the students with disabilities. IEP needs to do better. Schools need to shut up about budget problems and start working on prioritizing students with special needs having there needs meet so they have a chance at a good life. Government needs to stop budget cutting from these schools so that the needs can be meet.

    • Melody Jennings August 18, 2017 at 3:25 pm

      AMEN!!!!! someone please tell me how my sons school can send home papers that has his name on it and says great job 100% knowing good well he did not do the paper or even know what he was looking at. {example} my son is severely developmentally delayed with Autism and major eating disorders. he is non verbal and must have help to leave the classroom to be taken to the bathroom. he is 10 yrs. old with the mindset of a 2yr old and they have him listed as a 5th grade student. the paper he brought home was a science project that would lead me to believe that he did a paper called LABEL THE PLANT CELL AN IT’S PARTS and that my son Jace cut out the words NUCLEUS, CELL MEMBRANE, CELL WALL and CHOLORPLASTS and he glued those to the diagram of the plant cell. it has his name on the paper the date and has written on it GREAT JOB EXCEPTIONAL 100% he also knows the life cycle of a frog and can do water cycles and temperature ranges. and his coloring is remarkable!!!!! he stayed in the lines . not only did i see this as just cruel on every level because i would give my right arm for my son to have actually done this .and i KNOW it wasn’t intentional at all. she said she was just doing her job. my son also gets a report card every 9 weeks stating that he is doing math,science,history and english. how can this be? he gets a report card they say because they have to, but you know Mom that we will be doing a IEP on Jace later this year. and this is just my education problem. his father has not seen him in over 3 years or paid child support . i myself am on disability. i have no respite care or food stamps or ssi and live on my daughters couch in her small 500 sq ft Apartment. his father is a PHARM D. and living well. he just keeps me tied up in court trying to get my child support and some kind of respite care from him. which still hasn’t happened. my son has been with me and me ONLY for 3 straight years. i’m not even going to get into all the other health problems i now have in addition to my Bladder Disease. i am so lost have no resources everyday is a fight and he has went and paid 30,000 to learn how to fly got his license and enjoys renting airplanes to fly on his days off!! i honestly don’t know how he keeps getting away with this. i have no faith at all in our judicial system. then found this website. i pray i may be able to get some kind of help as to what do i or can i do next. this precious boy didn;t ask for this.

  2. William Areia September 8, 2017 at 3:47 pm

    I am a father who was pushed away from my family because of my own behavoral health problems. after a time of the correct type of counseling i’m now able to control myself. However i’m now returned home after several years of treatment to take care of my family as I should,It is a daily battle because I soon found out that my oldest son has those same problems. i’m trying to find him some help because after I returned how he has turned his grades around and is going to graduate at age 16 with a real doploma
    I’m very proud of him! he did it . my problem is with alta regonal services. first they said that he would not be able to recieve services till age 22 on the certificate track. then he blows there mind and is going to graduate at 16 and again they say he cant recieve services till age 18 so for two years he is suppose to sit idle? instead of working on some kind of transitional skill’s I also say where is the justice in all this. to be quite frank about this our legal system stink’s bad it’s time to flush the political toilet and stand up for our children so they don’t have to put up with this kind of trash!!!!!!!!!!! please someone start a class action law suite?

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