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The Supreme Court ruled today in a case that will reverberate through America's public schools. The courts said districts must provide students with disabilities the chance to make appropriately ambitious progress. NPR's Cory Turner has more.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: At the center of this case are six and a half million kids and a federal law known as the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act or IDEA. It makes a promise to students with disabilities that their school will give them a free appropriate public education, also known as FAPE.
GARY MAYERSON: The problem has been that the FAPE entitlement has never been defined by the IDEA statute.
TURNER: Gary Mayerson is a board member with the advocacy group Autism Speaks. He says that word - appropriate - is vague. And when budgets are tight and services expensive, this sometimes leaves schools wondering just how far do they have to go to educate their students with disabilities?
More than three decades ago, the Supreme Court tried to clarify things ruling that schools have to provide some educational benefit. To clarify that, here's Nancy Reder of the National Association of State Directors of Special Education.
NANCY REDER: Basically, you have to provide a Ford, but you don't have to provide a Cadillac.
TURNER: But this debate about how much is enough raged on. The current case out of Colorado was brought by the family of a boy on the autism spectrum. Andrew, known as Drew, attended public school through fourth grade, but his parents worried he wasn't making as much progress as he could have been. So they enrolled him in a private school that specializes in working with children with autism. There he did progress.
Ultimately, Drew's parents sued the district, arguing it should have to pay for Drew's private school tuition. A lower court, the 10th Circuit, ruled against Drew's family arguing that his public school had only to provide, in legal terms, merely more than de minimis. That's a complicated way of saying not much at all. Here's Gary Mayerson with another analogy.
MAYERSON: If I say to you, for example, we're going to have lunch and I give you some grains of rice, I can say that we had some food, but it was hardly nourishing. It would hardly be enough.
TURNER: Today, the Supreme Court ruled for a more demanding standard. Writing on behalf of a unanimous Court, Chief Justice Roberts wrote that a child's educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances and that the goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.
With this ruling, the court likely didn't end the debate over what is a free appropriate public education. Instead, it doubled down on the original intent of the law that experts, teachers and parents need to work together to set high standards for kids and then help them meet them. Cory Turner, NPR News, Washington.
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