Last week, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling on special education in public schools. The case, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, dealt with a child whose Individualized Education Program had failed to help him progress academically despite his academic promise. In accordance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, IEPs must be “reasonably calculated to enable the child to achieve passing marks and ad-vance from grade to grade.” The plaintiff’s IEP was found not to meet that standard.
The Court’s unanimous decision was a victory for special education advocates, especially because the Court proclaimed in its decision that public schools must “offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” In other words, children with disabilities cannot receive a public school education that sets the bar so low that they are unreasonably deprived of meaningful instruction and personal development.
What all of this means, in layman’s terms, is this: School children with special educational needs cannot constitutionally be deprived of an education that limits their ability to learn. Or, more simply, special needs students are more similar to normal students than many might think. Both kinds of students have equal rights public education access and are required to receive instruction that is tailored to their comprehension and aimed at developing their skills. In this way, it is clear that both the Supreme Court and Congress have made concerted efforts to protect the rights and dignity of students with disabilities. Students of all kinds are not to be viewed as liabilities, but instead as assets to be developed. Just as the ideologically diverse Supreme Court has unanimously recognized this fact, so, too, should the general public.
A commonly held perception is that a student with special needs is seriously developmentally stunted or so different from their peers that they cannot interact with others conventionally or develop their skills. That perception is, in many cases, simply wrong. Yet, this belief has led to school districts having special needs students sit “idly in regular classrooms awaiting the time when they were old enough to ‘drop out,’” according to the court decision. Obviously, this is immensely unfair to the individuals who, though different from conventional students, still have the mental capacity to comprehend the tenets of their education and develop their abilities.
While it is true that some individuals have considerable learning difficulties, many students have little difference in their ability to learn when compared to a conventional child if appropriate measures are taken in the classroom. Additionally, children have a legal right to an education that scales with their ability to learn, regardless of their individual learning difficulty. Thus, the Court’s decision offers much-needed assurance to all students who are categorized under the catch-all special needs nomenclature; it recognizes them as a true part of the educational community.
Consider this: There are about 6 million students who qualify for services under the IDEA. Many of them have significant potential to be productive members of society. Several of them will likely graduate from high school, attend college and otherwise lead lives that are indistinguishable from innumerable others in the American milieu. To deny those people the ability to better themselves and contribute to society is not only unwise, it is incredibly disrespectful to their legal equality and their humanity.
The Court’s message was the right one. Special needs students are part and parcel to the educational community and society at large. They should not be unreasonably discriminated against, and most certainly deserve the right to an appropriate education.