Yesterday’s news was celebrated by special needs parents as soon as it hit the proverbial airwaves. By a vote of 8-0, in the case of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a family in Colorado suing their local school district to pay their autistics son’s fifth grade private school tuition after the public school failed to provide an adequate IEP for him.
It’s perhaps easy to become distracted by the complicated issue of public school districts being compelled to pay private school tuition, admittedly a pretty uncomfortable topic for those of us who advocate for public schools. But don’t take your eye off the ball; the most crucial element of the decision represents exceptionally good news for students with disabilities in public schools.
In their decision, the Supreme Court raised the bar (or perhaps picked it up out of the mud) for what public schools must provide in order to satisfy the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act’s guarantee of a “free appropriate public education”. Lower courts had set that bar pretty low.
“It cannot be right,“ read the court’s opinion, “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 progress for children who are not.”
What is the level of educational benefit that local education agencies (LEAs) must confer on children with disabilities to provide them with the free appropriate public education guaranteed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. § 1400, et seq. (IDEA)?
— Amicus presented by the National Association of State Directors of Special Education
Those of us raising our kids in public school environments have a pretty good idea of what de minimis really looked like in its worst case scenarios. We’ve subsisted on the scraps that fall from the educational table. For the Supreme Court to now compel public schools to give our kids the opportunity to make meaningful, substantial and “appropriately ambitious” progress? That has to potential to change our lives and the futures of our kids. We’ll deal with the private school tuition issue later. (Private schools mostly don’t want our kids anyway. That’s a very ugly truth.)
This is the story I wanted to tell today. This is the news I wanted to share, and the tentative hope that comes with it. And honestly, maybe I should stop right here. I tell you what, I’ll just add a little break so you can end here with a festive little cheer if you’d like to keep things positive.
Still here? Let’s do this.
I want to introduce you to someone. I don’t have a name to share, or a description or even a gender. But this person I’m going to introduce you to is someone I know very, very well. And if you’re a special needs parent, you know them, too.
Yesterday’s Supreme Court announcement brought this person out, which I kind of knew it would. Any talk of funding and resources for kids with disabilities brings them out. Today, I witnessed two points being argued on Facebook (because if it’s on Facebook and it’s not a cat video or a pregnant giraffe, it’s an argument). I’m not going to address either of them directly right here, because they are big questions and I have to work in the morning so I can’t start with the heavy drinking now. But here are two points we have to contend with every time this topic comes up. Every. Single. Time.
1) Special education is really expensive, and that money could be better spent on kids who will become (wait for it) Productive Members of Society.
2) Gifted and talented kids (“like mine”, inevitably) get left behind, their needs ignored as teachers and resources are lavished on special needs kids and slow learners. Gifted kids become bored and unmotivated; as one mom actually wrote yesterday, and I’m going to quote it so I get it just right, “Wish the Supreme Court would enact some laws for our gifted children who are the ones really suffering.”
(I asked her to elaborate to those of us with kids with varying degrees or disability about exactly how gifted kids are the ones truly suffering. Surprisingly, there was no reply.)
Now, I’m not going to pretend there aren’t valid points to be addressed there, and I am particularly sympathetic to the special needs of kids identified as gifted and talented. (School districts who fold them into their special education programs have met with success, but they also have to contend with blowback from parents who don’t want their kids to face the social stigma of that label. This concern is one I’m perhaps slightly less sympathetic towards.)
But when confronted with these issues, there are really two ways you approach a solution. You can work to increase the educational opportunities for every student, particularly those for whom the traditional models don’t work. You can give teachers the resources to create truly inclusive educational institutions. You can fix the system.
That’s the hard path. The easy one is to throw kids with disabilities right under the (presumedly short) bus.
The argument against increased funding and resources for kids with disabilities in school can sometimes sound sensible. But to me, it feels like it usually boils down to a petulant “Where’s mine?”, like a jealous child throwing a tantrum when the gifts are opened at someone else’s birthday party.
And I wish it was a rare or shocking attitude. I wish that person was an outlier. But to those of us raising and trying to educate our disabled kids, that person is depressingly familiar. We’ve met them before.
We met that person at the school board or PTA meeting. They were asking why their exceptional child had to sit in a class with our kids. Wouldn’t they be better off segregated somewhere with their own kind?
We met that person at the city’s zoning commission meeting. They were upset because apparently installing accessibility ramps at their local business was presenting an undue burden.
I know we all saw that person on tv, the comedian howling about artistic integrity and the First Amendment in response to that comedy bit he did on cable about “Retards, am I right or what?”
And I’m pretty sure we saw that person, a nominee to the Supreme Court, answering questions and trying to weasel out of past court decisions in which he demonstrated his belief that our kids deserve the bare minimum when it comes to educational opportunities.
As I said, I’m not even going to begin to address any of these points. I simply wanted to acknowledge that yes, we’ve heard you. We’ve heard you, and if we can’t always bring ourselves to engage with you on the merits of those arguments, it’s not because we’re unfamiliar with them or have no valid response.
We’re familiar with you. We’ve met before.
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