In what disability rights advocates are saying is “the most significant special-education issue to reach the U.S. Supreme Court in three decades,” Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District involves a dispute over the level of education that public schools must provide to millions of children with disabilities in accordance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
The Supreme Court rendered its first opinion on the intricacies of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and its “free appropriate public education” mandate in the case of Board of Education v. Rowley 458 U.S. 176 (1982). The Rowley case clearly states that FAPE must be “tailored to the unique needs of the handicapped child by means of an individualized educational program,” thereby emphasizing the critical principle of individuality and it also explains the central importance of considering each student’s educational potential when seeking to determine whether a student is receiving sufficient educational benefit. But in so doing, the high court famously left unanswered the question of “how much benefit is sufficient under the IDEA’s FAPE mandate,” stating only that “we do not attempt today to establish any one test for determining the adequacy of educational benefits conferred upon all children covered by the Act.” The lower courts are divided on the issue, meaning that some states strive to provide greater levels of educational benefit than others and that students in certain states can expect more from their public education than others.
The argument currently before the U.S. Supreme Court is on whether public schools “owe disabled children ‘some’ educational benefit—which courts have determined to mean just-above-trivial progress—or whether students legally deserve something more: a substantial, ‘meaningful’ benefit” (Brown, Washington Post). This has caught the attention of local advocates at the Northern Marianas Protection & Advocacy Systems, Inc., otherwise known as NMPASI.
“So much of what we have stood and advocated for all these years,” according to Jim Rayphand, NMPASI’s executive director, “is that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ‘is meant not just to open the schoolhouse door to disabled children…but also to make sure that those children get an education that gives them a shot at equal opportunity, independent life and full participation in society’” (Brown, Washington Post).
Lawyer and NMPASI board member Rob Torres thinks that “nothing can be more challenging for a parent of a child with a disability than to advocate for an appropriate education. That child will become an adult and the parent’s greatest challenge and fear is to ensure he or she grows up capable to succeed with a great education. The standard remains here with PSS.”
The case was brought by the family of a boy diagnosed with autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. His conditions complicated his efforts to communicate and socialize, and that left him struggling with phobias and compulsive behaviors. Noting that their son made almost no academic or social progress during his time in public school, the parents eventually withdrew him and placed him in a private school where they say he made progress immediately. Accordingly they sought reimbursement for the private school tuition under the pretext that their son was denied a “free appropriate public education.”
“This is without question a close case,” Judge Timothy Tykovich wrote in his opinion for the 10th Circuit. It is clear, he continued, that Drew is thriving at the private school. “But it is not the district’s burden to pay for his placement there when Drew was making some progress under its tutelage. That is all that is required” (Brown, Washington Post).
Jimmy Sablan, NMPASI’s program manager, said, “This is an age-old point of contention trying to draw a line between asking for the Cadillac when schools say they only need to provide a Buick—the standard to date has been what’s most ‘appropriate’ which is very subjective and usually means that ‘the squeaky wheel gets the grease.’”
Rayphand concludes: “Frankly, I’m not surprised that a school system would argue for a minimum standard—it’s easier to provide—but I can’t be convinced that a push for anything less than a free appropriate public education that is ‘meaningful’ in the context of becoming a contributing member of society would be the right thing for any of our students (with disabilities or otherwise).”