Understanding the Supreme Court Decision on Students with Disabilities: An Interview with Natasha Strassfeld

On March 22, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that school districts must give students with disabilities the chance to make “appropriately ambitious” progress.  The case, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, ruled in favor of a special education student whose parents sued a local school district to pay his private school tuition.  This decision could have far-reaching implications for students with disabilities in the United States.  We spoke to Natasha Strassfeld, assistant professor of special education in NYU Steinhardt’s Department of Teaching and Learning to learn more about the meaning of the decision.

Can you tell us why the decision is so very important?

For the 6.6 million students with disabilities in the U.S., the decision in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District could have significant impact. The case involves a fifth-grade student with autism whose parents removed him from public school after several years of inadequate progress under his Individualized Education Program (IEP).  At issue in Endrew is whether a de minimis, or minimal, educational benefit from an IEP is sufficient under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Natasha Strassfeld

Is there a downside to the decision?

Endrew strongly signals the Supreme Court’s commitment to the procedural aspects of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Within the decision, the Court does not retreat from the objectives under IDEA that guarantee that the Individualized Education Program (IEP) for a student must serve as a service delivery system and enable a child to make progress based upon his or her needs. In addition, the Court, speaking unanimously, rejects the “merely more than de minimis progress” standard applied in the Tenth Circuit opinion that led to Endrew and, rather strongly, asserts that, “When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing ‘merely more than de minimis progress’ from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all.” Rather, the Court says that the child is entitled to “an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” Notably, Endrew also requires that the educational program be “appropriately ambitious” in light of a student’s circumstances. This portion of the ruling has strong implications for districts, particularly those districts that were not adhering to the principles of IDEA.

Does the decision say that public schools are not adequate for special education students?

No, quite the opposite. Chief Justice Roberts, who wrote the Endrew decision, repeatedly refers to the original mission of IDEA—namely to provide education services to students with disabilities who had historically been excluded from public schools. Roberts not only reaffirms the Court’s commitment to public special education within Endrew, but he also notes that there must be a standard in place that is connected to appropriate academic progress for a student with a disability as specified within a student’s carefully constructed IEP.

How will this decision influence day-to-day life in the classroom? In schools? Do you think we will see more funds allocated to special education?

Potential changes for the daily life of teachers and students in classrooms and schools really depend on the quality of the special education programs across schools and districts prior to Endrew. In Endrew, the student’s parents brought the case after they believed that his academic and functional progress had stalled for several years in his public school placement. If a school district maintains fidelity to IDEA’s objective of providing a free, appropriate public education to a student with a disability, then Endrew changes very little for the day-to-day life of the classroom teacher.

The federal Department of Education budget has remained fairly constant over the past several years, and that does not seem likely to change. However, what is clear is that, due to the widespread coverage and national attention that Endrew received this year, special education advocates and families of students with disabilities have reason to believe that greater attention will be given to the education outcomes of students with disabilities.



This post appears in the following categories: teachlearn.