Unanimous Supreme Court Rejects Gorsuch Standard in Disability Rights Case

The unanimous Supreme Court decision ruled for a family that had a sued a local school district over special education accommodations for children with disabilities.

In Gorsuch's third day of questioning by the Senate Judiciary Committee, he was questioned about his application of the 10th Circuit standard. Children like Endrew F. have a right to an "educational program that is reasonably calculated to enable [them] to make progress", he said.

Either way, Gorsuch said today, "I understand today that the Supreme Court has indicated that the [previous] standard is incorrect".

"It is in the nature of the Act and the standard we adopt to resist such an effort: The adequacy of a given IEP turns on the unique circumstances of the child for whom it was created", Roberts said, adding, "This absence of a bright-line rule, however, should not be mistaken for 'an invitation to the courts to substitute their own notions of sound educational policy for those of the school authorities which they review'". In a 2015 ruling, in which Gorsuch did not participate, the court said the district had satisfied its obligations under the law by providing a "merely more than de minimus" educational benefit and that Endrew had made "some academic progress".

The Supreme Court's unanimous rejection today of the low standard set by Judge Gorsuch raises even more concerns about Gorsuch's nomination. But that child'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.

Gorsuch responded: "If anyone is suggesting that I like the result where an autistic child happens to lose, it's a heartbreaking accusation". "I was wrong because I was bound by circuit precedent, and I'm sorry", he said.

They enrolled him in a private academy that specialized in autism, where his behavior and learning improved markedly.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. said the school district had not met its duty under the law.

Joseph and Jennifer said the private school was better able to meet their son's needs, but the district balked at shouldering the costs.

The case helps clarify the scope of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, which requires a "free and appropriate public education" for students with disabilities.

NPR reports that the subject in this case was a student with autism and attention deficit disorder whose parents transferred him from public school to private school in fifth grade because they felt the individualized education program offered by his public school was subpar; his progress improved in the private-school setting. "The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives", the opinion syllabus states.

  • Audrey Hill