The Federal Government Must Guarantee Education for Children with Disabilities

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that schools must do more than provide de minimis education for students with disabilities, requiring institutions to provide these individuals with the opportunities to make “appropriately ambitious” progress. Justice Roberts, writing for the unanimous court, stated that schools must offer individualized education programs that are “reasonably calculated” for each child particular circumstance to meet its obligations under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). This landmark decision shows promise for the future of children with disabilities and ensures that at least one branch of the federal government will continue to protect the rights of these students and their ability to receive a meaningful education. 

During Department of Education Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearing, some serious red flags were raised concerning the future of IDEA. Ms. DeVos was directly asked whether schools that receive federal funding should be required to follow the mandates of IDEA. She responded that she believed this matter “is best left to the states.” In 1990, Congress passed IDEA precisely because it found that the matter of providing students with disabilities equitable education could not be left to the states alone. The line of questioning continued and revealed that Ms. DeVos lacked knowledge about the federal law and its requirements, raising concern for the educational future of students with special needs. The risk of backsliding to a time before IDEA promoted equity in education is one that should be resisted.

Ms. DeVos expressed support for private voucher programs that force parents and students to sign away their rights under IDEA. This does not help to honor the commitment the federal government made to ensure that all students receive a free and appropriate public education. Ms. DeVos’ new role as Education Secretary has raised concern due to her lack of experience with public education, her push to diverting taxpayer dollars to private schools without oversight, and her lack of knowledge of the challenges facing students with special needs.

Countries have previously tried similar systems where the education of special needs students was left unregulated and to the “choice” of students and their parents. Like the United States until the mid-1970s, Singapore does not protect formal schooling of children with special needs under the law. Children must attend school starting at age 6; however, children with “moderate to severe special needs” are not included in this requirement. Therefore, policies regarding whether to admit students with special needs, how to integrate them, what services to provide, and at what cost, are up to the discretion of each school. Learning that this leads to further isolation of students with disabilities, this law will change in 2019 to include mandatory education for special needs students. Singapore’s leaders learned from their mistakes; we can only hope that Ms. DeVos does not attempt to recreate a system of deregulation and “choice” over inclusion and proper free education for all.

Non-discrimination laws alone are insufficient to ensure equitable education. Although some may state that schools that receive vouchers are not permitted to discriminate against students with disabilities, the schools are not mandated to offer special education services, meaning that schools can deny admission to students if their needs are seen as severe. Furthermore, under IDEA public schools must provide individualized education plans to students with disabilities to ensure that they receive a quality education similar to their peers. Without this requirement, students with special needs who use vouchers in private or charter schools may never receive a meaningful education that is tailored to their own needs.

Private schools under this system are not required to provide essential behavioral and educational interventions and this leads to issues for students with disabilities. Without the guarantee and mandate from the federal government, states will be able to deny students with disabilities the services they need to succeed. Without federal investment in public schools, private or charter schools become the only viable options for parents in some areas of the country. The impact on students with special needs can be devastating in this scenario. Enforcement of federal law should remain with the federal government to ensure these rights are secured.

In recent years, we have made some major strides in advancing the rights of students with disabilities. The unanimous decision by the Supreme Court ensures a promise for a bright future for children with disabilities. Iustitia Legal Center urges Ms. DeVos and the Department of Education to consider this forceful decision that urges meaningful compliance with IDEA. The Department must continue to invest in strong public education systems across the country, and uphold the rights guaranteed to students with disabilities under IDEA, as educational services are necessary to ensure continued support of individuals with special needs.

Also posted on medium.