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Is this Supreme Court ruling a game changer for special education?

March 28, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
The Supreme Court recently ruled unanimously in favor of providing more educational opportunities for students with disabilities, a move that could set the bar higher for more than six million students. Lisa Stark of Education Week joins John Yang to discuss the court's ruling and what it means for the classroom.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now: a Supreme Court ruling that could have a significant impact on special education in schools around the U.S.

John Yang is back with that story for our weekly education segment, Making the Grade.

JOHN YANG: Amid all of the big news last week, this stunning ruling may have been overlooked.

The court unanimously ruled that schools must give students with disabilities the chance to make meaningful and appropriately ambitious progress. That could set the bar higher for more than six million students nationwide.

Lisa Stark of our partner Education Week has been covering this story and joins me now.

Lisa, thanks for being here.

LISA STARK, Education Week: Thanks, John.

JOHN YANG: What was this case about?

LISA STARK: Well, the heart of this case is really, what educational benefit do schools need to provide to these students.

It’s a case out of Colorado, involved a boy named Drew. He has autism. The case was filed when he was 10. He’s now 17. His parents pulled him out of the fourth grade in the Douglas County Public Schools — that’s right outside Denver — because they were concerned.

His behavior was deteriorating. And they also felt that he wasn’t really getting any educational benefit, as required by law. They put him in a private school for autistic kids, and then they sued the district.

And they said, look, if you’re not providing the appropriate education, you need to pay for this private school.

Well, the lower courts all ruled against the family. And, in fact, the 10th Circuit ruled, the appeals court ruled that that school district only had to provide something that was merely more than de minimis, in other words, a very trivial benefit to the child.

The Supreme Court, as you indicated, totally rejected that. It was a unanimous decision. The court ruled 8-0 that, in fact, education programs must be appropriately ambitious, in light of each child’s circumstance, and they must be challenged. The kids have to have challenging objectives.

JOHN YANG: So, what does that mean for the classroom?

LISA STARK: Depends on the student.

If you’re a student who is in a regular classroom, maybe you have ADHD, you have a minor learning disability, you’re with every other student, it means that you need the supports to be able to pass that classroom, that classroom and that grade, and move on with your fellow students.

If you are a more challenged student, like Drew, who has autism, and might be in a special-ed class, well, then that program is tailored to what you can accomplish. But, again, as you say, it must be meaningful progress, challenging progress.

JOHN YANG: And what are disability advocates saying about this ruling?

LISA STARK: Well, they are applauding this. They see it as a big win for disability, for these kids, these nearly seven million kids, as you said.

They do think it’s a game-changer, that it raises the bar. The attorney for the family, Jack Robinson, told me that, for the first time, there’s a national standard that determines really what is the educational benefit these kids need?

And Drew’s mom, Jennifer, she told me that she hopes school districts will work more closely now with parents, will be more willing to do something that is right for their children.

Also, we should say that these advocates think this is just going to empower parents, that it gives them more leverage to demand more from school districts.

JOHN YANG: How are the districts reacting?

LISA STARK: Well, they say this isn’t a game-changer. They believe that most districts are already providing a very good education for these students with disabilities. They say that they meet this higher standard.

I did talk to Sue Pudelski. And she is with the School Superintendents Association. She did tell me that this may hold districts’ feet to the fire a little bit more, that they’re going to have to justify these plans they set out for all of these students, what is called an IEP.

She said, so that may give parents a little wherewithal to come in and say, what’s this program and how is it working?

JOHN YANG: And for parents of children like Drew, with this ruling, what do they need to know?

LISA STARK: Well, as I mentioned, every district needs to set up what is called an IEP — it’s an individualized education program — for each of these students.

And parents have to sign off on this. And, in fact, that’s happening right now. So, this is sort of fortuitous timing, if you will, because these are set up in the spring for the next school year.

Parents have always been told, pay careful attention, see what the district is going to do, ask a lot of questions, find out what resources you’re getting. Now they can also walk in with this Supreme Court decision and say, hey, here are the standards that you need to meet for my child.

JOHN YANG: Lisa Stark of Education Week, great to see you again.

LISA STARK: Thank you.

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