Justices Hear Case That Could Prove Costly for Schools

By: - January 11, 2017 12:00 am

A fifth-grader with autism at an elementary school in Dubuque, Iowa. Advocates for disabled students say the absence of national standards means children in some states get a better education and more services.

© The Associated Press

U.S. Supreme Court justices were asked Wednesday to set a higher standard for the education of disabled children, a change which could prove expensive for school districts.

That is the crux of the case brought by Endrew F., a Colorado student with autism, whose parents contend that his public school failed to give him the level of education he legally deserves. Endrew’s parents put him in private school and sued the school district to cover the cost of his private school tuition.

The Douglas County (Colorado) School District maintains it met the requirements of federal law, which guarantees disabled students a “free and appropriate public education.”

School districts around the country — and federal circuit courts — have interpreted that federal mandate differently. Endrew’s attorneys, with the backing of the U.S. Justice Department, are asking the high court to rule that schools must offer “significant” rather than “some” educational benefit to such students.

Neal Katyal, the lawyer for Douglas County School District, argued that most disabled students in public schools receive a quality education under the status quo.

Many schools are worried about the cost of providing more hours of help and new therapies to students with disabilities, or having to pay the private school tuition of students who are found to be receiving an insufficient education in public schools.

But Justice Elena Kagan seemed to back the plaintiffs. She described the current standard as “so low and so easy to meet,” and said it relies on schools to come up with quality individualized education plans for students with disabilities, rather than relying on the law to guarantee that.

Jeffrey Fisher, a lawyer for Endrew and his parents, said educating most students with disabilities is not expensive, and schools often can rely on resources that are already available within a school, though he acknowledged that some students with more severe disabilities might have to attend private schools. In either case, Fisher argued, taxpayers are better off spending money to educate a child instead of paying to take care of an uneducated adult.

But some of the justices expressed concern over the potential costs, particularly if a higher standard ends up spurring more lawsuits.

“I foresee money that ought to go to children being spent on lawsuits and lawyers,” said Justice Stephen Breyer.

A decision in the case is expected later this year.

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Rebecca Beitsch

Rebecca Beitsch writes about energy and the environment for Stateline. She covered state government in Missouri and North Dakota, writing about politics and policy for NewsRadio KMOX, the Columbia Missourian and the Bismarck Tribune.