Prior to the day-before-yesterday, school districts could – and often did, with the concurrence of the courts – argue that they were fulfilling the "free appropriate public education" (FAPE) provision in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) if a non-mainstreamed student with a disability was making progress toward educational goals, however minimal that progress might be.
That’s no longer possible for school districts, because the Supreme Court of the United States, by a unanimous 8–0 vote, has just declared that that’s not so: that minimal progress isn’t enough and that school districts can be compelled to pay for private schooling where it can be demonstrated that private schooling is more appropriate for assuring the same type of grade-level progress that’s expected for mainstreamed students.
The case is Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, and the Court’s decision is certain to have far-reaching implications for many of the 6.5 million students with disabilities in the United States, and for those students who aren’t being mainstreamed, the implications are huge.
In Endrew, the parents of a child with autism and attention deficit disorder removed him from public school in fifth grade and enrolled him in a private school in which he went on to make better progress. The parents argued that Endrew’s progress in private school made it clear that the Individualized Education Plan provided by the public school had been inadequate, and they sued to compel the school district to pay for Endrew’s private school tuition.
While lower courts had sided with the school district, which argued that “some progress” is sufficient to fulfill the FAPE provision of the IDEA, the Supreme Court sided with the family by overturning the lower court’s ruling. The Court held that "appropriate" goes further than what the lower courts had held and that "It cannot be right that the IDEA generally contemplates grade-level advancement for children with disabilities who are fully integrated in the regular classroom, but is satisfied with barely more than de minimis [too trivial or minor to merit consideration] progress for children who are not."
For students with disabilities and for their families, this is much more than a life-line to the chance for better educational outcomes: it’s far more like a fully functioning yacht.