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U.S. Supreme Court: Schools must raise standards so students with special needs can progress


The U.S. Supreme Court strengthened the case of parents children with special needs today when it ruled public schools must offer such students programs that meet higher standards and enable them to show progress.

"As someone with a disability, who also knows what it means to parent a public school student with multiple disabilities, I am thrilled with this decision," said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of RespectAbility, a nonprofit fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities. "School for students with disabilities today can be a disaster. Our family had to move so that our children could go to a great public school that does the right things for students with disabilities. However, most people do not have the flexibility to pick up and move to a different school district. Every child should have access to the education and skills they need to succeed. This Supreme Court decision can mean that students with disabilities can succeed, just like anyone else."

As the AJC reported:

Chief Justice John Roberts said that it is not enough for school districts to get by with minimal instruction for special needs children. The school programs must be designed to let students make progress in light of their disabilities.

The ruling quickly led to tough questions at the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois said the high court had just tossed out a standard that Gorsuch himself had used in a similar case that lowered the bar for educational achievement.

In its ruling, the Supreme Court sided with parents of an autistic teen in Colorado who said their public school did not do enough to help their son make progress. They sought reimbursement for the cost of sending him to private school.

 Roberts said the law requires an educational program "reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child's circumstances." He did not elaborate on what that progress should look like, saying it depends on the "unique circumstances" of each child. He added that there should also be deference to school officials.

"When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing merely more than de minimus progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all," Roberts said. "For children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to sitting idly awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out."


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Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.