Supreme Court may increase public school requirements for disability services

By Stephen Feller   |   Jan. 11, 2017 at 11:41 PM
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WASHINGTON, Jan. 11 (UPI) -- The U.S. Supreme Court appears ready to increase the services public schools are required to provide, or pay for if they cannot provide it, for disabled students under federal law.

Supreme Court Justices heard argument in a case suggesting public schools should be required to pay for private education for disabled students if they perform better educationally than when they were in a public school, which they indicate they may be willing to support.

The case is centered around an autistic child, Endrew F., from Colorado whose school district refused to pay $40,000 to a private school offering tailored programs the district's schools could not offer him.

Lawyers for the boy's parents argue that under the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires districts provide disabled students with a "free appropriate public education." The meaning of the phrase has been debated since Congress passed the law and has been the subject of numerous lawsuits from parents seeking reimbursement for services their children's schools did not provide.

Previous decisions in cases have been inconsistent, with some suggesting a school is required to proved minimal services, others saying schools must offer services sufficient enough to show educational progress and others, such as the parents in the current case, arguing the school should provide services allowing a disabled child to progress at the same pace as non-disabled children.

Currently, most school districts adhere to a standard somewhere in between minimal and some level of progress for disabled students receiving services.

"You're reading it as saying 'SOME benefit,' and the other side is reading it as saying 'some BENEFIT,'" Chief Justice John Roberts told lawyers for the school system who argue they have done what they are supposed to by showing any level of educational progress in Endrew F.

The law allows parents to remove their children from a public school or program and enroll them in a private one, and then sue the school district for reimbursement. Justice Samuel Alito said the use of the words "some," "significant" and "meaningful," among others, makes any requirement vague.

An attorney for the Obama administration argued that minimal progress is not enough, suggesting services be based on a specific child's circumstances. The argument is that showing individual progress in education is key, but that requirements for that progress to match non-disabled children may be unreasonable.

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