How much benefit is a benefit?
The Supreme Court has asked the Solicitor General to advise it on whether or not to decide a case regarding how much educational benefit meets the requirement of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act better known as IDEA. In 1975 President Ford signed the Education of All Handicapped Children Act (EHA). It, in essence, created a special class of citizens, handicapped children, who were entitled not only to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) but also to an individual education program (IEP).
Appropriate! Now there is a word. Since 1975 school districts, parents and the courts have tried to decide just what that means.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, in Denver, recently ruled that a Colorado child with autism had received FAPE because his educational program provided him with “some educational benefit”. Other courts of appeals have adopted a higher standard and said that the IEP must provide a “meaningful educational benefit”. It is typical that in these cases of disagreement among federal courts of appeals the Supreme Court gets to decide. This decision probably won’t come until the next session of the Court but the advice of the Solicitor General will weigh heavily on the decision given that this is an interpretation of a federal law. Yet another reason for people who care about children with disabilities to vote carefully in November.
Let’s look at this situation from the point of view of a house that needs a new roof. The roof is damaged and leaking. But the homeowner cannot afford or chooses not to afford a high quality new roof. So the homeowner decides to put a decent roof on half of the house. The rains come and the plan does not work out so well. The half of the house with the new roof is still damaged by the bad weather coming into the house from the side with no new roof.
A neighbor sees what the homeowner has done and she decides to replace her whole roof. But she also only wishes to spend a minimal amount of money. So she purchases the least expensive roof possible, but does her whole house. In a few years she finds that this is not such a good plan either. The cheap roof develops leaks and does not wear well. Before too very much longer she finds herself needing yet another new roof.
A third neighbor watches all this and realizes that a roof is of considerable importance to a strong protective house. So this neighbor decides to forego season sports tickets and buys a good roof of high quality minus the bells and whistles.
This analogy fits how we educate children with disabilities. We can cry we are too poor to do a complete job so we do the job half-way. This approach yields graduates who are not prepared to be contributing members of society and who need more adult services. The same taxpayers are footing the bill; it is just a question of whether the money comes from the right or the left pocket.
Or we can pretend we are providing an appropriate education for a child as long as the child receives “some educational benefit”- whatever that is. I would like to ask the judges in the 10th Circuit if they believe “some educational benefit” would be appropriate for their own children or grandchildren.
Or we can cover the whole educational program with a “meaningful educational benefit”. People frequently say we can’t afford a Lexus for all kids. But think about the money spent on the roofs of neighbors one and two. A half roof was NOT better than none. And a poor quality roof only wasted the money spent on it since it needed to be repaired and replaced. This is also true about half-way educational programs or education-lite programs. These don’t do the job for the students or the taxpayers so they are both a waste of lives and of money.
Whether you care more about money or more about children, a “meaningful educational benefit” should be provided to all kids. It is why we spend any of our money.