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Op-Ed: Improve Odds for NJ’s Disadvantaged Kids by Giving Them IEPs

Thousands of students in New Jersey would benefit from Individualized Education Programs tailored to their difficult childhood experiences

Irwin Stoolmacher
Irwin Stoolmacher

On March 22 the US Supreme Court in Endrew F. v. Douglas School District rendered a decision that expanded the scope of students’ special education rights. The decision will have far-reaching implications for the 6.5 million students with disabilities in the United States.

The Supreme Court, in a rare unanimous decision, sided with the family of a child with autism and attention deficit disorder who removed him from the pubic school in fifth grade and enrolled him a private school because the parents felt their son wasn’t getting enough educational benefits from the public schools.

The court held that public schools must meet a more demanding standard than the lower courts had established. Chief Judge John G. Roberts Jr. wrote in the opinion: “When all is said and done a student offered an educational program providing ‘merely more than de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offering an education at all.” Roberts added that “For children with disabilities receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to sitting idly … awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out.” The Supreme Court rejected a ruling by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Judge Neil Gorsuch was one of three Appeals Court judges who had ruled in favor of the district based on the premise that all that was required, by precedent, was for the district to provide an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that offers “some educational benefits.” The Supreme Court took a different tack when it said the educational program offered must be “appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances.”

IEPs required for students with disabilities

The decision was widely lauded by advocates for children with disabilities. Mini Corcoran, president and CEO of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, said “The Court… soundly rejected the belief that just some small benefit is enough.”

The basis for the decision was the Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA) which requires public schools to develop an IEP for every student with a disability who is found to meet federal and state requirements for special education. The Supreme Court ruled that the IEP must establish an education program that is “reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive education benefits.”

The IEP is the linchpin of the education delivery system for disabled children. A child’s IEP must include the following: an assessment of the student’s current level of academic and functional performance, measurable annual goals, a detailed schedule of services to be provided, specifics on how much time the child should spend in a general-education setting vs. a special-education setting, post-secondary goals and a plan for transiting outside of school, and other pertinent information found necessary by the school district’s child study team such as health plan or behavior plan for some students. The IEP should be developed by an IEP Team composed of teachers, school officials, and the child’s parents and should reflect collaboration between all of the partners. A good IEP should be tailored to the unique needs and circumstances of the child it was created for.

It struck me that there are thousands of educationally disadvantaged students in New Jersey who do not have a classified disability and as a result would not meet the federal and state requirements for special education, but because of poverty their lives have been replete with stressful and/or traumatic childhood experience that have negatively impacted their ability to learn. These children would benefit immensely from an IEP tailored to their adverse childhood experiences, which could include abuse, neglect, witnessing domestic violence, or growing up with alcohol or other substance abuse, mental illness, parental discord, or crime in their home.

Look at all factors that influence child’s life

In the 1973 landmark decision by NJ Superior Court Judge Theodore Botter in the Robinson v. Cahill lawsuit brought on behalf of urban school children, he found that the state’s system for funding schools discriminated against poor districts and created disparities in education. The decision, which was upheld by the Supreme Court, was based on the Constitution’s Education Clause which said “the legislature shall provide for the maintenance and support of a through and efficient system of free public schools.”

In the Robinson v. Cahill and the various Abbott v. Burke decisions the Supreme Court did not define how one should go about achieving equality of education opportunity except to suggest that it had to do with equalization of education expenditure.

I would suggest that the key to achieving equality of opportunity between our state’s urban and suburban districts is for the State Department of Education to require that all local school districts develop, implement, and annually revise an IEP calculated to meet the specific needs of all educational disadvantaged students in their district — looking at all the factors that connected to influence a child’s life.

I would define an educationally disadvantaged student as one whose education readiness or educational achievement is at least two years below average for his or her age or grade level in terms of specific expected outcomes in literacy: reading, speaking, listening, or mathematics.

If we are serious about improving the education of the children of New Jersey we should require districts to develop IEPs for all of our state’s educational disadvantaged students.

Irwin Stoolmacher is the founder and president of the Stoolmacher Consulting Group. He has more than forty years of diverse experience in government, education, business and the nonprofit sector. Since 1987, the Stoolmacher Consulting Group has assisted more than 100 nonprofits with fundraising and strategic planning. His bi-monthly column on politics/public affairs appears in The Times every other Thursday.

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