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Opinion: Understanding Endrew vs. Douglas — Fighting the Devil

By John Barton,

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When I was a boy, my grandfather told me a story about a wily, old mountain man who made a deal with the Devil. The story ends, as children’s stories often do, with a happy ending of sorts: the old man tricks the devil and traps him in a bottle until the Devil returns his soul. As a young man, I thought that most people would do the right thing if given a chance and if I ever met a devil, I knew it was possible to win if you were clever. I was wrong. Devils don’t care about things like contracts, or rules, or laws, and devils will never, ever do the right thing. If given a chance, doing the right thing is the last thing Ol’ Scratch will do.

I think about my grandfather often, and how he’d use stories to teach me lessons I sometimes wouldn’t understand until years later. When I would need his wisdom the most, I’d remember one of his tales and it would give me strength. As a father of special needs children, I frequently find myself searching for his guidance, remembering stories about love, and preparation, and life – and sometimes, more often than not, remembering his first lessons, those which were most important: how to fight devils.

In 1975, the year I was born strangely enough, Congress passed the Education for All Education Act (EFAEA), granting children with disabilities the right to an education comparable to that of their non-disabled peers. Prior to the EFAEA, educational opportunities for children with disabilities were frequently limited to, “We Don’t Want Your Kind Here”,”Stay Home”, and “Why Don’t You Just Live In The Attic.”

According to the U.S. Department of Education, before 1975, an estimated 1 in 5 children with disabilities (over 1 million students) received no education in U.S. schools. The NCD reports that during this same time period, many states had laws that excluded students with severe disabilities from attending public school and that millions more children with disabilities who did attend school were housed in segregated areas and received no education whatsoever. EFAEA sought to change that and provide an education to all children regardless of disability.

In 1990, the EFAEA would become IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, and while it made some modifications to the EFAEA, the basic premise of providing a quality education for all remained intact. IDEA would introduce several rights for children with disabilities: the right to an Individualized Education Program (IEP), the right to a Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE),  the right to instruction in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), the right to Appropriate Evaluation, the right to Parent and Teacher Participation, and the Right to Procedural Safeguards (steps parents can take to help protect their child’s right to an equal education under the law). While IDEA has since been amended and reauthorized in 1997 and 2004, it remains the law of the land.

Except…as people say, the Devil is in the details. I was a teacher in West Virginia’s public schools for fifteen years. Every school I’ve ever worked in did a fantastic job with special education. Those teachers saw what they did not as a legal mandate but as a personal mission. They celebrated their students’ successes with parents and viewed their work with students through a lens that was nearly religious in nature. I know many special education teachers who describe what they do as a moral imperative; they describe teaching special education as something they are driven to do and that they find purpose in. For many parents of special needs children, those teachers are no less than angels.

Sadly, that’s not true everywhere:  not for every teacher, not for every school, and certainly not for every county. It’s a sad truth in education that bad leadership leads to bad teaching. Superintendents, for example, who view Special Education not as their duty or responsibility but rather as a corner to be cut, a dollar to be deleted, or an expense to be erased. When you start looking at education as a matter of dollars not students, you stop seeing students. Rather than view education as an investment in the future of West Virginia, some decided it was less expensive to pay lawyers’ fees than provide educational services to disabled children. The ’97 and ’04 revisions to IDEA did nothing to reverse this trend and, in fact, made it easier for counties to make special education cuts and more difficult for parents to fight for the services, resources, and accommodations their child needed in order to be successful.

In 2008, this erosion of educational rights was made worse, oddly enough, by President Trump’s current Supreme Court nominee, Neil Gorsuch. In the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, in the case Thompson SD vs Luke P, in his opinion, Judge Gorsuch wrote that IDEA only required school districts to provide “merely…more than de minimis.” In other words, Gorsuch stated that schools were required to provide nothing more than a trivial amount of progress. Under President Bush’s Education Law, No Child Left Behind, a standard of Adequate Yearly Progress was established for non-disabled students. For students with a disability, in counties focused more on the bottom line than the children they serve, the bar for educational progress is set far lower: a trivial amount. As the parent of a special needs child myself, I tell you now: trivial is never adequate, and it’s far from acceptable.

The more I fight this fight, the more I find myself thinking of my grandfather. He was born in 1919, nearly a century ago, and joined the Army after Pearl Harbor. A Staff Sergeant, he stormed the beaches of Normandy in the 1st Wave with the 28th Division, fought in the forests of Ardennes at Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge, and was later assigned to General Patton’s Third Army during Patton’s push towards Berlin. After the war, he spent the rest of his life as a country preacher, just trying to find peace. My grandfather knew something about fighting devils, and he spent the rest of his life teaching others to do the same.

I remember his lessons well.

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