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A Big Win for Families with Special Needs Children At the US Supreme Court

There is plenty to rejoice and give thanks about with the March 22 8-0 ruling in the case of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. The Supreme Court got it right this time. And the payoff couldn’t be bigger for families with special needs children.

What this verdict means in layman’s terms is that school districts are bound to provide a legitimate effort towards educating children with special needs. Before, the level of commitment school districts were required to make was not clear under the existing standards for providing a FAPE (Free and Appropriate Public Education). It was possible and all too common for school districts to shortchange special needs children and have them spend 12 years getting an educational benefit no better than that of a day-care facility. Under this scenario, the year-to-year educational goals under the IEP (Individual Educational Plan) are set so low that a child can spend 12 years in a public school and achieve no better than a second-grade level of achievement. However, the teachers and principals meet their goals and a minimum of financial resources are needed – saving more money for administrator and teacher salaries and benefits. Everyone wins in this scenario except the student and their families. The end result are “graduating” special needs students who are unable to support themselves and many times need public assistance to the tune of ~$50,000/year.

However, with this court decision, school districts will need to develop an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) that is in the words of Chief Justice John Roberts, “appropriately ambitious” and tailored to the “unique circumstances” and needs of each student. That means school districts will need to work towards the best interests of the students and not themselves. With this ruling it means that a special needs child is more likely to complete their schooling with at least an 8th grade level of education or better. At that level, a student would be proficient enough in reading and math to learn a trade and make a productive living. In the old scenario the student would need ~50K of public support. Under the new scenario, the earning power of learning a trade could be around $60K. That is a positive net change of $110K each year. Thus, the economic payback is enormous, and over the working lifetime would far outweigh all the extra services required during the school years. But even on a humane level, these children will get a chance at having a life, and the burden on the families will be greatly relieved.

Finally, a few words about the family of the autistic boy who needed to take their case all the way to the Supreme Court. Anyone with children of special needs owe this family an incredible debt of gratitude. Their struggle has been going on for 7 years and I am sure the family spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees battling a school district who treated this family as nothing more than troublemakers who are to be vanquished for the common good. Hardly any family would be in a position financially to make that kind of commitment. Hardly any family would have the courage and perseverance to continue the fight for all these years. But they did it. And they won. Shame on the Douglass Colorado District for giving this family such a hard time. Because of legal settlement gag agreements it is a well-kept secret that all-powerful school districts can turn predatory on families who dare fight on behalf of their children. Schools have been known to harass and intimidate parents, even calling the truancy officer or social services in attempt to break the parents’ efforts to advocate for their child. This pressure many times results in family tragedies such as bankruptcies, divorces, and moving from district to district to find a district that can support the individual needs of their special needs child. In this particular case, an enormous amount of public money went into fighting a family of a special needs child on the basis that all the district owed the family was evidence of a minimal educational benefit. This, all too often, is the reprehensible mindset of public education. Hopefully, the District and School Board will be held accountable. With this ruling, school districts across this great land will get the message that the days of cheating special needs children out of an honest education are over.