In a decisive victory for students with disabilities, the United States Supreme Court has recently issued a unanimous decision which is certain to have a wide ranging impact on students receiving special education. The decision settles a long-standing split in the law over what amount of educational progress a student in special education is entitled to receive under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”).
This case focused on a child with autism who was receiving special education services from the public school. After what his parents considered to be years of stagnation, the parents removed the student from the public school and placed him in a private school more appropriate to his needs. At his new school, the student was able to make progress on various educational goals.
Many Federal Circuit Courts have held a student is only entitled to “some” educational benefit, which was generally interpreted to mean anything beyond a “de minimis” amount of education. In stark contrast, other Federal Circuit Courts (including the Circuit Court for New Jersey and Pennsylvania) have held that a student is entitled to a “meaningful” educational benefit, which is far more demanding than “some” educational benefit. The school district in this case was arguing for the first standard, and the parents were arguing for something closer to the second.
The Supreme Court’s decision in the case affirmatively rejects the approach that students are only entitled to “some” benefit. Instead, the Court ruled that “in order to meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” This standard embodies a requirement that the education a child receives must be substantially beneficial. Perhaps equally important, the Court reiterated the requirement of a student-centered approach to special education which requires that an IEP be developed with the student’s unique needs and abilities in mind. The Court stated that although goals for each student will be different, “…every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”
Now that IEP season is upon us, parents should be fully aware that school districts cannot justify “successfully” providing special education services where the child has made little or no actual progress. In such cases, legal action may be necessary to obtain different, additional or compensatory education services as well as other remedies.