US high court hands disabled students win on education standards
U.S. Supreme Court is seen in Washington, U.S., October 3, 2016. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

In a victory for disabled students, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Wednesday that public schools must offer them a special educational program that is sufficiently ambitious to ensure they make progress.

The justices unanimously ruled in favor of an autistic student, Endrew F, and his family who said his local school district in Colorado's Douglas County had failed him. They said schools must offer more than the bare minimum in educational benefits to disabled children, setting aside a lower court ruling that had found the school district had satisfied federal law by doing so.

Instead, the court said special education must be "reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child's circumstances."

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act came under scrutiny on Wednesday at the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch. Democrats said that in eight out of 10 cases as a 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge, Gorsuch sided with school districts rather than disabled students in lawsuits filed under the law.

Responding to U.S. Senator Dick Durbin, Gorsuch said those cases were unanimous and he was merely applying the bare minimum standard based on precedent. "I was wrong because I was bound by circuit precedent, and I'm sorry," he said.

In Endrew's case his parents pulled him out of a public school in the county located near Denver, frustrated with his lack of progress. In fifth grade they moved him into a private school specializing in autism, where he advanced quickly.

They sued the school district in 2012, seeking to recover tuition costs. 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."

On Wednesday, Chief Justice John Roberts criticized that standard, saying it meant children would receive instruction that amounted to sitting idly, waiting to drop out. "A student offered an educational program providing 'merely more than de minimis' progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all," he said.

Roberts said the current rules are fine for disabled children who are integrated in regular classrooms, but not for those who are not. Educational plans for them, he said, must still be "appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances."

(Editing by Matthew Lewis)