Families who have faced obstacles in their efforts to give their children with special-needs the best shot at academic and life success can take heart from a pair of recent court rulings that should affect education in this state.
In 2018 the U.S. Department of Education handed Michigan the lowest rating among the 50 states for the way it delivered special education services. The rating, which is determined heavily by measurable outcomes for students, came about the same time federal courts were raising the expectations for what schools must do under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2017 ruling in the case known as Endrew F established that students with disabilities are not only entitled to special education services, but those services must provide “meaningful benefits.” While the decision provided a key principle that education officials must abide by, the high court gave lower courts the leeway to flesh out the meaning in specific cases decided between parents and education agencies.
One such major case, decided last year in the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, gave the parents of a Tennessee boy with Down syndrome a satisfying victory. Local education officials had removed the boy from his general education classroom, where he was meeting his educational goals, and placed him in a segregated program. The appeals court ruled that the boy had the right to return to his inclusive program, rejecting school officials’ argument that a student with disabilities must match a typical student’s academic progress in order to stay in a regular classroom.
The case resonated strongly with Traci Lambert, and not just because the Sixth Circuit has jurisdiction in Michigan. Her daughter Katie, 13, also was born with Down syndrome – a long misunderstood diagnosis that often causes people to underestimate what individuals with that condition can achieve, academically or otherwise. Research has shown dramatic speech and literacy benefits for Down syndrome youths who learn in classrooms with non-disabled peers. That situation, known as the “least restrictive environment,” is what federal law sets out as the default option for students with disabilities.
According to state data, the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District, along with many of the state’s 56 ISDs, missed key benchmarks set by the U.S. Department of Education. Results on Michigan’s federally approved State Performance Plan reveal that too many students with individualized education plans — which are supposed to guide a special-needs student’s education — are not getting the services the plans call for. They are placed in segregated facilities, falling short of academic proficiency, failing to graduate and not given opportunities for education beyond high school. This is true of children with a host of different special learning needs.
Guided by research and parental insight, Katie’s mom, Traci, has long advocated for an educational environment that is both inclusive and effective. In her quest, she has met resistance from the local school district, as well as public charter and private religious schools. Perhaps not surprisingly, Katie’s educational journey has encompassed a mix of highs and lows. Most recently, her mom reluctantly removed her from school — again. It was the third she had attended.
Katie is currently stuck years behind her grade level and her potential. Katie, her mother says, has made uneven progress on the goals in her education plan. The officials who have designed and adopted Katie’s plan, she says, have largely disregarded her expert input as a parent.
Lambert filed two official complaints with the Michigan Department of Education to resolve her concerns about Katie’s educational plan. She included the two major court rulings as supporting evidence. When departmental employees investigated matters, they said the school officials had met all the basic procedural requirements for developing her plan. But their explanation did not cite either the “meaningful benefits” standard or the recently issued Sixth Circuit decision in their determination.
Katie’s mom longs to educate and equip her daughter for a productive life. “I want Katie to receive an education that prepares her to go to college or get a job and be independent, just like her older sister,” she says. For Katie and other students, the chances of fulfilling these hopes depend on parents, educators and policymakers being aware of their potential. Equally important, parents must have greater power to say how their learning needs are met.
Led by a parent in similar circumstances, the state of Florida overhauled its policies. Andy Gardiner, raising a son with Down syndrome, came to recognize that the intellectually disabled are often capable of more than society has expected from them. In 2015, as state Senate president, he championed a program that offers state-funded education savings accounts to families of special-needs children. Today, nearly 12,000 Florida students benefit from Gardiner Scholarships, which let their families select and pay for the education-related services and providers their children need.
Michigan’s constitution strictly limits families’ education options to the public sector. But that’s not a good reason to deny parents what their Florida counterparts currently enjoy: a much greater power to chart their children’s educational path.
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