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How much help does a 'free appropriate public education' require?

This week, the U.S. Supreme Court took up a critically important case that could determine whether children with disabilities will receive all the support they need to thrive in school.

Before the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act was passed in 1975, most kids with disabilities were simply excluded from schools. At best, they were allowed to attend for social reasons, but little to no effort was made to actually educate them. Having a disability was assumed to mean you would be a permanent burden on family or on the state.

The IDEA changed that assumption. Instead, it guaranteed every child an equal right to a free, appropriate public education geared toward developing their full potential. When a child's disability presented challenges, whether in access or learning, the school district would be required to set up an individual education program providing the services necessary to allow them to keep up with their peers.

Is it enough for a school to do something?

In the case being appealed, according to NPR, a boy with autism wasn't able to keep up with his peers in public school, even with the help of an aide. His parents asked for additional services, but the school district refused.

When he was transferred to a private school serving kids with autism, however, he made significant progress. His parents asked the school district to provide the same services as the private school provided -- the services that had allowed him to progress in school. When the district refused to do so, the parents sued for the cost of the private school tuition of$70,000 per year.

The Supreme Court must decide whether school districts are required to provide expensive, specialized services if they are the only thing allowing a particular child to succeed. Or are school districts only required to provide the services that would allow most children with that disability to succeed? Or might it be enough for a school district to try something beyond standard schooling?

"The school district here is saying, so long as we give barely more than a de minimis benefit, just we teach you a little bit of something, that is enough," says the attorney representing the child's family. "We think that's a recipe for second-class citizenship."

While we don't know how this case will turn out, especially with the court shorthanded, it seemed that Chief Justice Roberts might be on board with requiring more support. He noted that an extra five minutes of instruction would be "some benefit," but the law requires a "specific, meaningful" benefit.

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