Schools Must Meet a More Demanding Standard in Special Education

Educational Intervention

When parents ask schools to take care of their students with disabilities, they are expecting instructional interventions that are guaranteed under the standard of a “Free Appropriate Public Education.” For example, if a child has reading problems, a reading intervention that directly addresses those challenges would be in line with a free and appropriate public education. The student should also be provided an instructional intervention in the least restrictive environment, i.e., in the main classroom if at all possible. If a student has autism and ADHD the challenge to schools is to continue to provide this free appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment. Too often, students with challenges, may be removed for reasons of behavior, and the intervention may be the bare minimum the school can provide and may not resemble a free and appropriate public education. In a new ruling by the Supreme Court on a case in Colorado, the bare minimum was rejected and the appropriate ambitious standard was embraced:

In Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, a Colorado family asked the district to pay for their son’s private school tuition. They felt Endrew, who has autism and ADHD, wasn’t making sufficient progress in his public school.Federal law guarantees a “Free Appropriate Public Education” for all students with disabilities. In writing the court’s opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts held that schools must meet a more demanding standard than “merely more than de minimis” and that a child’s education plan must be “appropriately ambitious.”(National Public Radio, 3/25/17)

Do Schools Already Do This?

Although this is good news for children with challenges, some schools argue that they already do this. And because the court stopped short of defining this new standard for increased care called, appropriately ambitious,” many are scratching their heads wondering how they will define appropriately ambitious in their school systems. Of course it depends on the kid, the school and the resources, especially a qualified teacher, to be put in place, but some schools argue they already do this.

While commending the decision, some public school advocates made a subtly different point, that “appropriately ambitious” is already the norm in many schools. Nancy Reder, deputy executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education, told NPR Ed, “A higher standard is already playing out throughout the country.” And Julie Wright Halbert, legislative counsel for the Council of the Great City Schools, said, “I think this really reflects what we currently are already doing.” (National Public Radio, 3/25/17)

Increase Standards for Special Education

I would disagree that schools are already doing this. Some schools are doing this, but the bare minimum is the rule and special education nationally is in disarray. Service definitions are uneven, care is not agreed upon, and court cases are common if parents have money and understand they have to force their system to pay for the appropriate level of educational intervention. Many parents know their children are not receiving effective educational interventions but they do not have the resources to talk back to the system. There are some school systems that provide a private education for students they can’t educate as well when parents ask for it. And there are some school systems where providing that help would be astronomical in cost and will fight parents in court before providing that appropriate education. And there are some students who don’t fit into easy definitions of educational care. But what this does say, in essence, is that the bare minimum is not acceptable, and the appropriately ambitious standard should be embraced. How parents, students and school systems work that out remains to be seen.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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