Court restricts services for disabled students to federal requirements

Applying a 30-year-old Supreme Court ruling to a California case, a federal district court found that schools do not have to meet the top level when providing services for students with disabilities - only a basic floor of opportunity."

The decision has far reaching implications for officials throughout this state because so many requirements of California's education code can easily be interpreted as exceeding those outlined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, often forcing districts to offer programs for students in special education that go far beyond the scope of those provided for their peers in general education.

At issue was the type of services offered by Poway Unified for a deaf and hard of hearing girl who was transitioning from middle school to high school. The family had requested a "word-for-word" transcription service called Communication Access Realtime Translation (CART) while the district was willing to provide TypeWell, which transcribes concepts less literally, "meaning-for-meaning."

A due process hearing ensued and the Administrative Law Judge ruled in favor of the student, saying that Poway had failed "to provide the s

Student a FAPE (Free Appropriate Public Education) in the ... IEP by its failure to provide her with CART in English, Geometry, Biology, and Health classes," and ordered that it be immediately offered.

The district appealed and prevailed in Poway Unified School Dist. V. Cheng on Sept. 23 in the Southern District Court of California. The court overturned the previous decision by the ALJ, basing its reasoning on Board of Education of Hendrick Hudson Cent. School Dist. v. Rowley, a classic decision by the Supreme Court from 1982.

In that opinion the high court asserted that federal law does not imply that a student with a disability has a right to "every special service necessary to maximize potential," but, rather, is only entitled to "some educational benefit." The Circuit Court underscored that concept by directly stating, "So long as a disabled student is able to benefit educationally from a school, that school has provided her with a FAPE."

The decision did not strip states of the authority to pass statutes mandating educational programs that surpass the basic requirements of IDEA, nor relieve districts of the responsibility of complying with those statutory regulations once passed. However, in evaluating the quality of supports offered in an individual education plan, the measure of adequacy is the one set in Rowley, not a more stringent test.

"Rowley holds that a FAPE must meet the State's educational standards,' but it is not obvious that "educational standards" refers to, or incorporates, the accommodations to which disabled students are entitled under state law, as opposed to the content of the education received," said the opinion. It is "access to education, not so much the substance of the education received, that matters," the decision explained further.

Left unanswered was the question of how schools and parents should reconcile differences in the future when state laws appear to surpass the narrow confines of Rowley. The decision implied that such issues, when they arose, would need to be settled through fair hearings or civil suits.

"If parents are dissatisfied with their child's IEP, they may seek an administrative hearing. ...And after that hearing, any aggrieved party can bring a civil action in state or federal court."

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