Making Progress: Children with Disabilities in the Public School System

            Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District is a recent case that was heard by the  the Supreme Court of the United States that shined light on a lack of quality education being provided to a child with a disability in  public school. 


Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District made its way to SCOTUS after a lower-court decision ruled in favor of the school district. The backstory is as follows: a child who was diagnosed with Autism and Attention-Deficit Disorder was attending a public school where his parents felt that his educational needs were not being met, and his individual education program (IEP) was not being tailored to his needs and to educational advancement. In other words, his IEP for the next grade-level resembled that of his previous years of school. So, his parents decided to remove him from the school and enroll him in a private school. After doing so, the child made major improvements both academically and socially.

During this time, the child’s parents felt that their child should have been provided an adequate public school education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), so they filed a complaint with the Colorado Department of Education in order to recover the costs that came with sending their child to a private school.

Disagreement between the child’s parents and the school district ensued. The school district understood that the intent of IDEA was that children with disabilities would only have access to a public school education and that the intent of IDEA was not to guarantee children with disabilities to any specific degree or quality of the education provided. Wait, so basically the school district saw to it that “these children” were only guaranteed to be students in a public school and not guaranteed a quality education?

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Shouldn’t a quality education be provided to ALL children—regardless of whether or not the child has a disability? Now, I understand that “quality” can be defined in many ways, but I am sure that there is some consensus among us that children with disabilities deserve to be provided an education that affords them the ability to grow and make progress both academically and socially.

Well, the court felt the same way, and there was a unanimous 8-0 vote in favor of children with disabilities being able to make ambitious progress in a public school setting, holding school districts accountable.


This decision was a breakthrough for the disability rights community and for youth with disabilities attending public schools. Particularly, this decision has helped to pave the way for child advocates and case workers who work with adolescents who have IEPs. This decision has made it clear that there needs to be accountability in public schools when it comes to students with disabilities being afforded the right to make progress and receive a quality education.

As a former child advocate intern, many of the children that I had advocated on behalf of had IEPs, and I remember those feelings of frustration when I would look at the goals for each child’s independent educational program; many of their goals were repetitive. And if the child did not meet these goals, instead of a new plan of action being set in place, which would have meant looking into goal changes, the solution was to continue with the same goals, to where a child’s IEP would look the same each year. This system of treating these children as incapable of succeeding academically is not only wrong, but it sends a message to these children that they are not worth the school’s time and resources.

Lowering the bar for youth with disabilities is both demeaning and draws from stereotypes and misconstrued images of what a child with a disability can accomplish. Each child deserves to be able to make progress in their education, and when given an IEP, these children should not be looked at as less than because of their need for a specialized program.

Currently, we are seeing numbers for children diagnosed with Autism rising. And to date, there are 6.6 million students in the United States who are receiving special education services. These children all deserve to receive an education that is tailored to their needs, and they deserve to receive an education that is sufficient.

This decision, although not completely without error nor perfect, allows both parents and child advocates, including social workers, to begin holding public schools accountable for children’s access to an education that meets the child’s individual needs as well as an education that will allow each child to progress year-after-year, both academically and socially. Armed with the knowledge of this SCOTUS decision, social workers can further advocate for their clients’ academic and social needs.

As social workers, we seek to advocate on behalf of vulnerable populations, and many of us either are currently working with or have in the past worked with children and adolescents. This SCOTUS decision, however minor, is a move in the direction toward progress for youth with disabilities.

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6 thoughts on “Making Progress: Children with Disabilities in the Public School System

  1. So good to hear that steps are being made in the right direction! Disability or no disability, every child should have the opportunity to learn in an environment that is safe and supportive of their learning needs in parallel to other students. It’s counterintuitive to allow a child into a school and then not address the child’s specific learning needs and goals. Thanks for posting!

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  2. Hi! I’m embarrassed to write that I had no idea about this case, or the reality children and parents faced prior to this case. This particular family had the ability to remove their child from a school that was not meeting his needs, and send him to a private school, but I wonder how many families before him could not afford their child the same opportunity. So exciting to read the unanimous decision of the supreme court!!! Thanks for sharing:)

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  3. I remember listening to a presentation about this case in undergrad and I’m glad I came across your blog because it refreshed my mind to something I had forgotten about. This was a great read and I totally agree with you. I went to a high school that had an excellent program tailored to students with disabilities or students who needed particular focuses in their education plans. We had families moving from different counties and school districts so that they could have their child in this program. And although I wish this were the case for all schools, I realize it’s not and am glad that a SCOTUS case like this came out so that this specific population can receive a quality education. It’s no longer something we can just sweep under the rug.

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  4. Excellent post, and thanks for bringing to light a case I had not heard about either! I think you touched on the heart of the matter well – quality of education for disabled children is just as important, if not more so, than just access. Interestingly, I think this is the gist of the argument behind the school voucher debate in general (waaaay different issue, I know, but just interesting to draw the parallel).

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  5. Wow. I, too, had not heard of this Supreme Court case until reading your blog. It is astonishing to me that the school district would even argue that it is not their responsibility to ensure that a child gets a “quality education.” Isn’t that the whole point of an education? And why should children without disabilities be entitled to a quality education, but not children with disabilities? I understand that there is probably more costs involved to educate students with disabilities, as they often require more one-on-one attention and teachers with specializations in areas such as autism, but it seems like it would be a basic human right for all children, regardless of whether they have a disability or not, should be entitled to a quality education in which they are able to learn and thrive. I love how you bring in your personal experiences as a child advocate inter n. You highlighted how children with disabilities often to not reach their full intellectual capacity because of the system that is in place. We should not lower the bar for children who have disabilities – all children with disabilities should be given the opportunity to succeed and thrive, keeping in mind that some students may do so more quickly than others. I’m glad the SCOTUS decision shows progress for children with disabilities, as this could go a long way in decreasing the stigma around youth with disabilities and allow them to thrive.

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  6. Pam! This was such an eye opening case! I too did not know that this case existed, let alone went to the Supreme Court. The argument of the school district was honestly so disappointing, due to the fact we as individuals expect to get a quality education no matter what disabilities one may have. The school district should not be pushing aside these children because they are diagnosed with a disability, when in reality most of those children do so well in a school environment. When I was in high school I was a volunteer for a small program my neighbor created, called Challenger Gym. Myself and a few other high school students were apart of the program, and each week we met with a buddy and did different activities. All the children in the program were diagnosed with a disability, and they ranged from autism to cerebral palsy. My buddy was named Joey and had cerebral palsy, could not speak, and was confined to a wheelchair. Each week you could tell he was learning new things and enjoyed the activities that he was participating in. It just goes to show you that children with disabilities are fighters and deserve the same access to a quality education. Awesome job Pam! I also loved all the gifs.

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