Will NJ Schools Be Affected By US Top Court Ruling On Special Ed?

State already answers to higher legal standard, but federal ruling should re-emphasize that minimum progress is not enough for special-needs students.

When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 8-0 last week in favor of raising standards for special education nationwide, the decision was widely applauded by parent and children advocates.

But when it comes to how much the ruling will directly impact New Jersey, the answer is a bit more complicated.

In a decisive victory for special-needs children, the court ruled in a case that originated in Colorado that schools are compelled to teach students with disabilities at a level comparable to other students and above the standard of minimum progress.

The case was based on a Colorado family who maintained their child on the autism spectrum had been better served by a private school. A lower court had found the minimum level adequate.

But Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that a child’s “educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances” and “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”

“When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing merely more than ‘de minimis’ (negligible) progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all,” Roberts wrote.

“For children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to sitting idly… awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out.”

But as with many such court rulings, how — and when — that translates into school programs is difficult to determine. And there was considerable discussion among New Jersey advocates and educators about what it meant.

New Jersey child and parent advocates, like their counterparts coast to coast, were thrilled at the message the court had sent.

“What the opinion helps to clarify is school districts need to provide above the minimum level,” said Peter Chen, an attorney with the Advocates for Children of New Jersey. “The bar can’t be lower for students with disabilities.”

Yet Chen and others pointed to the legal ruling of the federal Third District Court, of which New Jersey is part, that had set a higher standard. Legally at least, New Jersey precedent was above that addressed by the Supreme Court, he said.

“New Jersey has always had a slightly more robust standard,” Chen said. “But what they helped to do with this is send a signal that schools need to provide more than the lowest standard and that children with disabilities deserve a challenging program and goals.”

District leaders and attorneys said much the same, albeit stressing more that many schools had already been following a higher standard.

“I think across most of New Jersey, the decisions to a child’s program is already based on the individual needs of a child,” said Jorden Schiff, superintendent of Hillsborough schools.

“This was happening already,” he said.

Added Douglas Silvestro, an attorney specializing in special education law with Busch Law Group in Metuchen:

“Although the Supreme Court’s decision in Endrew F will likely result in sweeping changes to how special education litigation is handled in most other States, New Jersey and the rest of the Third Circuit have been held to a higher standard than what was shot down by the (Supreme Court).”

“Even if there are some subtle shifts in the legal landscape here in New Jersey as a result of this decision, which we expect there may be, it is highly doubtful that this decision will impact the actual provision of special education programs and services for children in the state.”

Others said this will just put more pressures on districts and their budgets, especially as it relates to outside private programs.

“Ultimately, unless the state begins to more appropriately fund our neediest students, special education costs are going to result in significant cuts to other general education programs,” said Charles Sampson, superintendent of Freehold Regional High Schools district.

”No one seems to want to do anything that alters that trajectory,” he continued. If the state does not effectively monitor and regulate these private schools, public schools will continue to suffer.”

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