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US Supreme Court to rule on special needs students

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Headlines these days tend to focus on events in Washington, but a major court case is brewing that could have major ramifications for parents of kids with disabilities.

Under US law, public schools nationwide are required to admit students with disabilities, accommodating their needs and ensuring they have access to a free education. Courts have upheld this law several times over the years, most notably in 1982. However, the law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), and resulting court rulings affirming it, neglected to address one critical issue: students with disabilities must have access to school, yes, but what about the quality of their education? Should schools offer these students a bare minimum of an education, or should they work to ensure these kids get whatever resources are needed to get a quality education?

The case in question, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, originates in Summit View Elementary in Littleton, Colorado. In 2010, Endrew F (not his real name) was a student at the school. Endrew, now in his late teens, is autistic. This led to him acting out in many serious ways that included taking his clothes off, striking his head, running away from school and more. His parents, concerned that he wasn’t benefiting from being in a public school, transferred him to a local private school that specializes in educating students with autism. The student’s parents asked the public school board to reimburse them for the tuition expenses, but the school board refused, insisting they had obeyed the law, which only required them to admit Endrew but did not place requirements on the quality of his education.

At issue is how high a school is required to aim when educating students with disabilities. Lower courts have so far found in favor of the school board, with one judge stating the standard is to provide “some educational benefit,” a goal achieved in Endrew’s case. His parents, however, say that in practical terms this translates into “just above trivial,” which they consider to be unacceptable.

It is a difficult issue, with major ramifications for schools from coast to coast. Setting higher standards will almost certainly require significant increases in school funds at a time when budgets are already stretched. Yet demands on public schools are unlikely to go away: the rate of autism alone has more than doubled since 2000 to 2% of children.

Which way will the court rule? It’s difficult to say. Whatever the decision of the justices, however, the lives of many thousands of people will be affected -- as, potentially, will school boards across the nation.
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