SCOTUS ruling a victory for special ed students; beware the oncoming spin

Today the U.S. Supreme Court unaninmously ruled in favor of an autistic Colorado student and his family seeking reimbursement for private school tuition. The family charged the public school district near Denver was not meeting its obligation under federal legislation (the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, IDEA) to provide their son with a Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE.) By ruling in the family’s favor, SCOTUS has told public school districts everywhere that they must set — and meet — a higher bar for students with disabilities.

That is an excellent thing. These particular lines from the opinion makes me want to stand up and cheer:

“his (plaintiff’s) educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances, just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most children in the regular classroom. The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”

My joy at the ruling, however, is tempered by the knowledge that it’s destined to be spun as an argument in favor of school vouchers, which President Trump and his education Secretary Betsy DeVos have said form the cornerstone of his education policy. Had the family had a voucher, the argument will go, they could have saved themselves all the legal wrangling and angst and expense and gotten their son’s education paid for.

Two problems with that. First, and foremost, a voucher wouldn’t cover the cost.  Douglas County, Colorado, where the family resides, has a voucher program. In 2014-15, vouchers were worth $5,066 per student. Lower court records (including the ruling against the family by the Tenth District Court of Appeals on which Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch sits) report that the family moved their son to a school called Firefly Autism. There are no tuition details on Firefly’s website. However, a Denver Post story on another child with autism reported Firefly’s annual tution at more than $27,000 – in 2011.

As the Center for American Progress reports, parents are responsible for the difference between the voucher and the tuition bill. I’ll dare to suggest a five-figure difference makes a mockery of “choice” for 99 percent of families. (Side note: I’m not saying the tution isn’t worth it, I’m addressing the practicality of paying for it.)

Problem 2: Had the family accepted a voucher, they very likely would have relinqushed the legal recourse that gave them today’s outcome. Again, referring to the Center for American Progress: “Many of the state voucher programs, particularly those that target students with disabilities, require parents or guardians to sign away their rights under the IDEA and 504, and sometimes the ADA.” I could not find information on the Douglas County program that specifically addressed the question of relinquishing federal rights, but the legalese on p. 7 of this executive summary certainly implied that the public district would not be liable for whatever happened in the receiving private district.

It was a good day for students and families with disabilities, and for society, by extension. But I am wary of it being co-opted by politicians who seek to eviscerate the best choice most families have.





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