SCOTUS’S Special Education Decision and What it Means

Marilyn Arons, MAC Director & CEO

Special education has become the land of the living dead. Laws go unenforced by state and federal agencies, school staff are largely untrained in IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act), and school district attorneys often make decisions for the child study teams when no legal action is pending. There are few if any advocates left who know what they’re doing, and there are no affordable lawyers for parents. This is the context for the most recent special education decision from the U.S. Supreme Court in a unanimous ruling on March 22, 2017.

Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District is about an autistic child whose parents placed him unilaterally in a private school due to lack of progress in the public school. They then sought reimbursement for that placement. At issue was the level of special education services that are required in order to comply with IDEA. Was it a minimum level of service or a higher standard of a free appropriate public education? At its core, this SCOTUS opinion addresses the importance of the IEP and the process for developing it to provide more than minimal benefit to each handicapped child. The decision states:

  1. The adequacy of a given IEP turns on the unique circumstances of the child for whom it was created.
  2. The nature of the IEP process ensures that parents and school representatives will fully air their respective opinions on the degree of progress a child’s IEP should pursue.
  3. The IEP is tailored to the unique needs of the child, based on careful consideration of the child’s individual circumstances.
  4. Endrew’s IEPs were largely the same from Kindergarten through 5th grade, his behavioral needs unmet.
  5. His parents filed for due process. That administrative decision held that he had made minimal progress that was enough to comply with IDEA requirements. The district court and the 10th Circuit agreed with the minimal standard requirement for Endrew’s education.
  6. An IEP is not a form document. It is constructed only after careful consideration of the child’s present levels of achievement, disability, and potential for growth.
  7. Every disabled child should have the chance to meet challenging IEP objectives.
  8. Aiming IEP instruction so low is tantamount to “sitting idly…awaiting for the time when they are old enough to drop out.”
  9. Parents and school representatives will fully air their respective opinions on the degree of progress a child’s IEP should pursue.


At this juncture in special education there are no more individualized IEPs. Rather, they are boiler-plate goals and objectives generated from the school’s computerized bank of IEP goals and objectives and based solely on classification and a predetermined placement. None of them minimally comply with the requirements of IDEA. But there is nobody around to monitor or supervise either the process or the outcome. Unless there is vigorous parent input, either with or without an expert or advocate, no IEP is developed to meet either the academic or functional needs of the student. Staff is not trained, they are over worked, and state and local budgets do not support higher levels of service.

Today’s young parents do not appear interested in learning how to develop IEPs and prefer to hire an expert to do the job. Those who cannot afford outside help or fail to learn how to write an IEP, the vast majority, get essentially nothing for their children. Therefore, the gift of this SCOTUS opinion is only as good as the awareness it brings. Perhaps the most critical implication of this decision is to emphasize the absolute importance of the IEP. It is not just worthless paper that parents sign if they agree with the contents. It is the individualized instructional program that is to improve the life of the disabled child, with the parents playing a key role in its development. Now, with this opinion, there must be more individualized services for each child at a higher level. Let’s see if that happens.