Monday, May 3, 2010

What's an Appropriate Education?

We've looked, in earlier blogs, at how the landmark Supreme Court case, Brown v. Board of Education, helped set the groundwork for the laws that opened the public school systems of the nation to children with disabilities. Many other Supreme Court cases have helped shape the laws that govern special education. Today, in honor of Law Day (May 1st), we are going to look at a case that has frustrated parents and advocates since it was first decided in 1982.

Parents who want the ideal education for their child with learning and other disabilities often come up against the standard set in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), that their child's education need only be "appropriate". The meaning of appropriate has been much discussed over the years, but it is generally still held to be the standard set forth in 1982 by the U.S. Supreme Court in what is known as the Rowley case.

Amy Rowley was deaf, with minimal residual hearing. Her elementary school decided that she did not require a sign language interpreter in her classroom, since Amy was very bright and was skilled at reading lips. Her parents sued the school, arguing that even though Amy was getting passing grades and progressing from grade to grade, she was missing a portion of what was going on in the classroom and was therefore being denied a "free appropriate public education," which is often referred to by the acronym FAPE.

The Supreme Court found that Amy was not entitled to a sign language interpreter. The Justices set out a narrow view of what constitutes FAPE and stated that to meet that standard an education under the special education law must merely provide,

"...personalized instruction with sufficient support services to permit the child to benefit educationally from that instruction … must meet the State's educational standards, must approximate the grade levels used in the State's regular education … and should be reasonably calculated to enable the child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade."

In short, the Court found that FAPE fell far short of requiring excellence; it only required that academic progress be made. In the years since the Rowley case was decided there have been changes in the law and much commentary that raises the question of whether the minimal Rowley standards still apply. However, Rowley has not explicitly been overturned, by the Supreme Court or by newer versions of the IDEA, and parents who expect that their child will be receiving the very highest level of instruction under the IDEA, to fully maximize his or her potential, are often disappointed.

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