Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District: Students With Disabilities and “Meaningful” Education

January 11, 2016 marked a momentous day for individuals with disabilities throughout the United States with the Supreme Court hearing arguments for Endrew v. Douglas County School District. The debate revolves around the interpretation of the 1982 Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley case, relating to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975 (IDEA).

A family in Colorado and their son Endrew argue that IDEA was intended to provide children with disabilities the access to a meaningful education which also allows for “significant educational progress.” The school district, however, interprets that IDEA has no set standard, and simply ensures that the child receives personalized education which is sufficient (i.e. “merely more than de minimus”). Endrew’s family is concerned that the Douglas County school district did not offer adequate resources for children with disabilities to achieve. After Endrew completed the fourth grade in the Douglas County School District accompanied by his Individualized Educational Plan (IEP), his parents disagreed with the proposed IEP for his fifth year and made the decision to put him in a private school. Endrew and his parents argued that he was not being sufficiently provided a Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE), as mandated by the IDEA, and were seeking reimbursement for the tuition of his private school.

Although Endrew and his family lost this case, over the course of administrative hearings and lower court cases, the family and the school district have been arguing over the measure of “some academic progress” and whether the district must meet a “merely more than de minimus” requirement. The federal government supports Endrew and his parents, drawing on Rowley which indicated that a FAPE must provide meaningful access to education which is much higher than “merely more than de minimus.”

Through the course of the Supreme Court’s oral arguments, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. summarized that the main issue at hand is whether or not IDEA places emphasis on the word “some” or the word “benefit” in the phrase “some benefit”, each resulting in both contrasting and notable meanings that has manifested into the current argument: Providing some benefit would achieve the goals of the school district in distributing education that is merely better than nothing; whereas providing some benefit implies that the education be meaningful and allow for academic progress, which Endrew and his parents seek. Justice Elena Kagan also reminded the school district’s attorney of the precedents set in previous cases in which “some benefit” was repeatedly intended to have “some bite.”

The outcome of the Court’s decision will define the quality of education for students with disabilities for years to come. Those interested in following the case, can find a copy of the transcript from this week’s arguments here. United Cerebral Palsy, along with other organizations, has signed to an amicus brief which can be viewed here. We will continue to monitor this case, and will be interested to see how the Court decides.

The RISE Act of 2016

RISE Act – The Respond, Innovate, Support, and Empower Act of 2016 (Bill S.2203)

Students living with a broad range of disabilities are enrolling at 4-year institutions more than ever before, but not all are completing their education. According to the National Center for Learning Disabilities, students with learning disabilities (LD) enrolled at 4-year colleges or universities are completing their degrees at a rate of only 45%. For their non-disabled peers, the rate of completion for a 4-year degree currently stands at 53%. There are multiple factors that could be contributing to this rate. A new bill, The Respond, Innovate, Support, and Empower Act – or RISE Act, was introduced in the Senate on December 7, 2016 by Senators Bob Casey (D-PA), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), and Bill Cassidy (R-LA). This bill seeks to remove some of the most common barriers faced by students, and their families s, by requiring 4-year colleges and universities to adopt more transparent policies for their disability services – making it easier for students to obtain accommodations, services, and the supports they need throughout their college experience.

The RISE Act would amend the Higher Education Act (HEA) to clarify the types of documentation institutions of higher education must accept from students who are enrolling who have a disability. This would allow students to submit the same form(s)of documentation for proof of disability as they have done throughout their K-12 education. As stated in the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, sufficient documentation for showing a student’s disability includes:

  • Previous documentation of an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), including plans that may be both current and out-of-date;
  • Documentation of a 504 Education Plan;
  • Private school documentation of services;
  • A plan or record of disability from another institution of higher learning

In addition, the RISE Act would authorize $10 million in funds from the National Center for Information and Technical Support for Postsecondary Students with Disabilities (an already existing program under the HEOA). The funds would go towards helping to better equip professors, teachers, and other facility and staff at colleges and universities to meet the growing needs of students with disabilities, including providing training, strategies, and help with providing accommodations. The RISE Act would also require all institutions of higher learning to adopt transparent policies regarding their disability services, and require them to widely share and disseminate that information to parents and families.