What would it mean if every child had the opportunity to learn to their potential? If all children received the interventions they needed, sooner rather than later?
Well right now, that opportunity is being decided by the Supreme Court of The United States — and parents of children with special needs must pay close attention to the outcome.
Here’s the backstory: On January 11, 2017, SCOTUS heard the case of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. In this case, the parents of a child with autism withdrew their child from local public school and placed him in a specialized school for students with autism.
The parents then sought to recover the costs of the private placement from their school district, because they claimed the public school did not provide their child with the education he was promised under federal law.
That’s where the argument begins. Right now, public schools are required to provide children with disabilities with “a free and appropriate public education.” Or, FAPE. However, the current law does not define what FAPE means. There is no nationwide standard and its interpretation is left to the circuit courts — which means that the standards to which public schools are held accountable depends on which circuit they’re located within.
Basically, where you live determines whether you get the minimum public education, or a meaningful one.
That’s all about to change. SCOTUS will now define what FAPE means for all children — and that could be a good or bad thing, depending on where you live. If the new definition includes language that is better than what your circuit currently uses to define an appropriate education, your public education services will need to improve. But if it includes language that is weaker or worse than your current circuit’s definition, the implications on your child’s public education may be very serious.
Never has a definition been so important to families of children with special needs.
The court has not yet ruled on this case. So in the meantime, as parents, what can we do? We can stay vigilant, and educated, and involved. We can vocalize our needs, and our point of view.
Many of the arguments against Endrew F.’s family revolve around the increased costs to public school districts should the court mandate higher standards for special education. I believe this is a short-sighted, unsound argument.
One universal truth about special education, and there are not many, is that the earlier we intervene, the better the eventual outcomes. Young people with disabilities who do not receive the support they need from public education will eventually add cost to our society. The sooner we, as a society, invest in our children with special needs, the less we will eventually pay for their support and care.
But beyond the financial argument is the moral one. It is our obligation to protect our most vulnerable citizens. With proper interventions, children with special needs can mature into wonderful, caring and productive members of our pluralistic society.
As a parent of a child with special needs, and the Head of a school for children with complex challenges, I encourage the court to adopt language that demands every child has the opportunity to learn to their potential. Because isn’t it the responsibility of our schools — and our society — to help ALL children expand beyond the probable and into the possible?
If you’re interested in learning more about Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, you can follow the case on the SCOTUSblog. And let me know: what do you think of the implications of this case?