Parents of learning disabled students say a unanimous Supreme Court ruling will make it easier for them to insist on appropriate services for their children, and harder for the schools to say no.
The court on Wednesday said that it is not enough for school districts to get by with minimal instruction for special needs children. They must design programs to let students make progress in light of their disabilities, and be prepared to explain their decisions when challenged.
"It is a massive victory for children with disabilities across this country who will really hold the cards when their parents go into the school system and say now it's time to act for my child to have an equal opportunity to achieve the American dream," said Maryland parent Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, president of the nonprofit RespectAbility.
The court struck down a lower standard endorsed by President Donald Trump's nominee to the high court, Neil Gorsuch, who quickly faced tough questions at his confirmation hearing.
Chief Justice John Roberts sided with parents of an autistic teen in Colorado who said their public school did not do enough to help their son make progress. They sought reimbursement for the cost of sending him to private school.
The case helps clarify the scope of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a federal law that requires a "free and appropriate public education" for disabled students. Lower courts said even programs with minimal benefits can satisfy the law.
"It's a validation to be able to say if the data is not showing that my child is making progress, we need to be looking at what other programs or what other services to put in place," said Amanda Morin, of Portland, Maine, who has two children with learning and attention issues.
Roberts said the law requires an educational program "reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child's circumstances." He did not elaborate on what that progress should look like, saying it depends on the "unique circumstances" of each child.
School officials had warned of a possible surge in costly litigation should the court drastically raise the standard, and lead parents to make unrealistic demands.
National School Boards Association General Counsel Francisco Negron said the court instead issued a "measured" decision. He said it would lead to schools more carefully tracking the progress of special needs students. But he praised the court for saying it would defer to the judgment of educational officials.
At the Gorsuch hearing, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin, of Illinois, said the high court had just tossed out a standard that Gorsuch himself had used in a similar case that lowered the bar for educational achievement. Durbin said the nominee had gone beyond the standards of his own appeals court by adding the word "merely" in his 2008 opinion approving the "de minimis" — or minimum — standard for special needs education. Durbin suggested that Gorsuch had lowered the bar even more.
Gorsuch, handed a copy of the ruling during a break on the third day of his hearings, noted that his panel reached its decision unanimously based on a 10-year-old precedent.
Durbin also said Gorsuch had ruled against disabled students in eight out of 10 cases dealing with the IDEA.
"To suggest I have some animus against children, senator, would be a mistake," Gorsuch said.
The ruling does not go as far as the Colorado parents wanted. They had argued that educational programs for disabled students should meet goals "substantially equal" to those for children without disabilities. Roberts rejected that standard, saying it was "entirely unworkable."
The court's decision to require a more demanding test for progress has major implications for about 6.4 million disabled students who want to advance in school and rely on special programs to make that happen.
Thompson reported from Buffalo, N.Y. Hananel reported from Washington, D.C.