Home > Uncategorized > Supreme Court Decides in Favor of Special Education Parent, Sets Stage for More Downshifting of Costs, Public School Budget Increases

Supreme Court Decides in Favor of Special Education Parent, Sets Stage for More Downshifting of Costs, Public School Budget Increases

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court unanimously supported the parents of an autistic child who unilaterally withdrew their child from school and sought tuition reimbursement. In what will surely become a landmark case for public education, Politico writer Caitlin Emma reported that the judges all concurred that “school districts must go the extra mile to accommodate students with disabilities“, overturning the 1982 Supreme Court ruling that individualized education plans must provide “some educational benefit”. Ms. Emma offered some details on the Chief Justice Roberts’ written decision:

Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the court that a “child’s education program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances, just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most children in the regular classroom.”

“The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives. This standard is more demanding than the ‘merely more than de minimis’ test applied by the Tenth Circuit.”

Roberts declined to interpret that FAPE provision or elaborate on “appropriate” — “mindful that Congress has not materially changed the statutory definition of a FAPE since Rowley was decided.”

But he said the requirement must be “an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

During the years I served as a school administrator I witnessed the advent of PL 94-142 and subsequent court fights over what the term “Free and Appropriate Education” (FAPE) meant. At the same time I heard endless excuses from the US Congress as to why they could not find the promised funding necessary for schools to implement the laws and regulations that mandated FAPE. In 1982, when the Rowley case was decided, districts had some degree of clarity on what they were required to provide to students with special needs: they needed to demonstrate that a child was receiving some educational benefit from the IEP developed in team meetings with parents. Because this was a low bar, over the years many parents pushed to change this standard, to no avail until the Endrew v. Douglas County case decided on Wednesday.

The consequences of this decision will take some time to work their way through the system. Students’ IEPs are reviewed annually and many 2017-18 plans are already adopted. It will take time for parent advocacy networks to gear up and time for school district attorneys to get a clear picture of what this will mean for the development of future IEPs. The budgetary and educational impacts of this bill will likely occur in 2018-19 onward, but here are three budgetary predictions I will offer:

  1. The Federal government is more likely to change the definition of FAPE than it is to provide the 40% funding promised when 94-142 was passed: Given the budget presented by President Trump in accordance with the GOP platform, I do not see any possibility of an increase in funding for Special Education. Indeed, given the broad outlines of the budget thus far, it is more likely that the current budget will be frozen or possibly diminished.
  2. The State budgets for the coming year will not include additional funding to help underwrite the costs district will incur: Given that the GOP controls 35 of the States and they are universally intent on containing taxes and spending, it is unlikely that they will find room in their future budgets to accommodate the additional spending that will inevitably result from this decision. Moreover, given the nascent movement that directs more state funds toward de-regulated charters, homeschool students, or students enrolled in sectarian schools, the pool of funds available for public schools is likely to diminish without the additional burden of providing expanded programs for special needs students.
  3. Local budgets will be required to absorb all of the budgetary impact that results from this decision: If, as a result of this decision, more students are placed in specialized programs like the one Endrew sought, their tuition costs will accelerate and local taxes will increase or programs will be compromised. If, as a result of this decision, districts decide to independently or collaboratively develop specialized programs, the additional costs for those programs will be drawn from local taxes or programs will be compromised.

Given those budgetary predictions and the impact of the State’s movement that allocates more funds for parents whose children attend de-regulated charters, are homeschooled, or enrolled in sectarian schools, the diminishment of funds and resultant diminishment of offerings for regular education students will likely result in flight from public schools.

There will be exceptions to this flight from public education, however. Affluent communities who value their schools and want the best for all students enrolled in the schools and already pay higher taxes may not experience higher costs. Many of these districts are already providing programs for special needs children that are, in Judge Robert’s words,  “…reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”  Districts offering programs that already meet this standard will not feel the same pressures as districts who strictly adhered to the de minimus standard set by Rowley. Those districts, whose barrier to entry is the need to qualify for a mortgage on an expensive home, will continue to thrive.

The districts who will suffer the most and experience the most flight will be those with limited tax bases who serve low income children. As costs are shifted downward and mandates for special education and costs escalate, their budgets will become increasingly tight and they will be forced to cut programs. As programs diminish, the parents who are most engaged in their children’s education will withdraw and the district will be serving the most difficult population: children raised in poverty whose parents are also struggling.

I do believe the Supreme Court did the right thing in this case. I wholeheartedly concur with Judge Roberts’ assertion that a child’s education program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances”. My fear is that while the courts will continue to rule in favor of children and parents, the legislature will continue to shirk it’s responsibility to provide the means for ALL districts to provide an appropriately ambitious program for ALL children. I would love to be proven wrong.

 

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