Federalism & Special Education

by Kim Braun
Late last week, the Supreme Court decided a case increasing educational requirements that schools must provide for students with disabilities. Previous rulings stipulated that, under the Individuals with Disabilities Act (IDEA), special education needed only to meet a standard defined as more than the minimum education. The Supreme Court now indicates that this threshold was too low. While the court did not specify that special education achieve equivalency with regular education, it lifted the standard to an “‘appropriately ambitious’” standard where “‘every child … [has] the chance to meet challenging objectives’” (qtd. in Brown and Marimow). The court also indicated that these levels would vary depending upon the unique needs of the special education student, typically delineated in individualized education plans (IEPs).
This Supreme Court decision nicely illustrates federalism at work. The court performed its checking function on the other branches by ruling on the administration of legislation. Interest groups were also evident during the process: Autism Speaks and the National School Boards Association voiced support and opposition, respectively, for raised standards. These groups, among others, filed amicus briefs during the judicial process to advocate for their members’ perspectives during the deliberations.
Interestingly, the case connects to recent Trump nominees: the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals previously decided the case. Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch was not involved in the initial ruling, but used the precedent in later cases he decided on that same court. The father of a student affected by a Gorsuch ruling on the standard testified against the judge’s nomination to the highest court, relating how the decision negatively affected his child. Additionally, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos’ responses to questions about her plans to implement IDEA concerned several confirmation committee members, who felt that she was not adequately familiar with the legislation.
 Brown, Emma, and Ann E. Marimow. “Supreme Court sets higher bar for education of students with disabilities.” Washington Post, 22 Mar. 2017, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/courts_law/supreme-court-sets-higher-bar-for-education-of-students-with-disabilities/2017/03/22/fcb7bc62-0f16-11e7-9d5a-a83e627dc120_story.html?utm_term=.82bb58ec726c.

6 thoughts on “Federalism & Special Education

  1. Nice article choice. Something I have been wondering is, what is the end goal here? I understand that IEPs help to individualize the students and list their strengths and weaknesses, but what is the overall end goal of their education? For example, students who do not fall into the special education category are educated so that they might become contributory members of society and they are expected (for the most part) to become tax paying citizens.
    I agree that there should be higher standards for special education student’s education but I sincerely want to know what the overall agenda is here? There are different levels of special education students and some are able to function more independently than others while some will never be able to operate as an independent citizen. My main concern is the students who will not be able to live on their own, work, and make life decisions by themselves.
    I wish I knew more about what their education entails and what teachers and schools are educating these students on. Is their education focused on their ability to interact with society, to work, or a mixture on many things. Some of the people I have met, who work in this segment of education explained that this is a very difficult field to work in. Teachers must focus on each student individually, interact with the parents, and uphold the standards set forth in their district. What are these new education standards seeking to accomplish in the long run (overall, and not just on a case by case basis)? I may ask this question in class if I don’t see a response to this comment (and again, I am sincerely asking because I am unfamiliar with the reasoning and goals of the increased standards).

    • I also do not have much knowledge in this area (which is part of the reason that I read the article in the first place). I think it is difficult to have overarching regulations for special education, as each student’s case is unique. The imprecise language in such regulations still leaves the potential for future challenges as districts’, individuals’, and governments’ opinions on “ ‘appropriately ambitious’ ” standards will likely differ.

  2. This is a great article, Kim! This gives a nice narrative the whole store. It provides the background necessary to make a reasonable opinion. I agree that this is a huge day for everyone in this country. Having this ruling, hopefully, will force the hands of schools to provide the appropriate education to students with disabilities. When it comes to the Senate confirmation hearings, we see even more federalism at play. This is going to very interesting to see how the rest of the confirmation process processed. When he was confirmed to the circuit court, he received bi-partisan support. As things become more political and partisan, it is going to be difficult for Democrats, who have voted for Gorsuch in the past to not support him for the Supreme Court. Gorsuch received 16 Democratic votes from very influential members of their party, Clinton, Kerry, Biden, and Obama to name a few. It is evident Gorsuch a nominee that has appeal for both sides and seems to be the best candidate, but just as the Republicans did at the end of Obama’s term, politics is being played

  3. I think this is a great step in the right direction. “Educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances” and that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives” even if the child is not fully integrated into regular classrooms.” I specifically enjoyed this quote, because it is important and I’m glad it is noticed that all children, regardless of their disabilities, are challenged equally within their education. I support the parents for addressing the case with their son who they think deserved more attention and accommodations at the public school. It is interesting to me that even though Gorsuch believes in helping more with setting the bar higher for special education, he could only do so much due to the circuit precedents. “I was bound by circuit precedent,” Gorsuch told the committee, saying that ruling against a child with autism and his parents was “heartbreaking.”

  4. I truly agree with the Supreme Court decision on challenging students with an IEP. Providing bare minimal should not be an option. It is not helping the students succeed at all. My future wife who is a teacher gave me a little insight on what special education looks like at her school. She informed me that students get pushed in and pulled out services. With in the services the students are working at their learning level. Not challenging enough. The students are being pushed along to the next grade yet they are not being taught at that level. There is no challenge to help prepare for the next level. The fact that the article stated.. “The court also indicated that these levels would vary depending upon the unique needs of the special education student, typically delineated in individualized education plans (IEPs)”. Makes it a plus. They will continue to provide for each child while providing rigor and challenging work to theses students. My only hope is that if such a move will be happening it needs to be done with fidelity. A curriculum needs to be provided along with effective teaching. The government needs to ensure what it needs to look and sound like for each individual due to each student’s unique case.

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