Feighan: Special ed ruling won’t enforce itself

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

If advocate Marcie Lipsitt’s chaotic schedule is any indication of the state of special education in Michigan these days, it has more than room for improvement. It has gaping holes.

By 9 a.m. on a busy Monday, Lipsitt, a longtime special education advocate from Oakland County who has done work across the country for thousands of students, has already been to two meetings and she has two more planned for the afternoon. Interviews have to be squeezed in during a quick coffee run.

“It’s seven days a week,” says Lipsitt. “It’s nonstop.”

Lipsitt’s work is cut out for her these days, especially as educators, administrators and special needs parents make sense of a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District.

Hailed by some as the most significant victory for special education students in decades, the unanimous decision earlier this spring said schools must provide a meaningful education to disabled students. Special ed students must also show significant progress and be given substantially the same opportunities as typical students.

A child’s “educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances,” and that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives,” wrote Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. in the court opinion.

That’s music to the ears of every parent of a special needs child. Too often, we’ve seen the bar set too low for our children, students who have potential but often just need the tools to maximize it.

The Endrew F. case was brought by parents in Colorado who were frustrated that their local district wasn’t doing more to teach their autistic son. They put him in a private school where suddenly he made progress.

But as much as the Endrew ruling is a victory for special needs children and their parents, it’s only the first step, insists Lipsitt. It’ll be up to parents to enforce it. And that means filing complaints if districts are still just doing the bare minimum.

Lipsitt says she’s already filed several complaints with Michigan’s Department of Education, citing the Endrew F. case and the new standard it establishes.

“I’m sending the same strong message that they better never again use Hendrix v. Rowley,” an older Supreme Court ruling that said the basic floor of opportunity was all that districts needed to provide special ed students, said Lipsitt.

“Providing the minimum is no longer allowed in this country,” Lipsitt said.

The challenge for many special ed parents is knowing “what they can and can’t fight for,” says Lipsitt, who got her start as an activist and later an advocate, fighting first for her sister with an anxiety disorder and learning disabilities and later her son who has special needs.

When my daughter was almost 3 — she was born with a rare genetic condition that affects her growth, development and pretty much everything else — we fretted as she prepared to start school full time and weighed less than 15 pounds. We asked about an aide riding the bus with our tiny daughter but were told she wasn’t medically involved enough to require an aide, even though she doesn’t have speech. We decided to drive her ourselves instead.

Six years later, she rides the bus and has an aide. But it took getting tangled in her straps on the bus to get one.

Lipsitt recommends parents research the procedural safeguards that exist and file complaints to the state if necessary. She also recommends a nonprofit called the Advocacy Institute as a resource.

Pushing back and demanding more of our districts will be uncomfortable for many parents. We walk a fine line between being fierce advocates for our children, but also wanting to maintain a good relationship with people who care for our children every day.

But the Endrew F. ruling won’t enforce itself, says Lipsitt. If districts aren’t writing “measurable goals” for students, a complaint could push districts “to provide more related services up front and for some, it’ll be sooner.”

What matters most is the children, says Lipsitt.

“The ultimate goal for me is for every child to have a meaningful free and appropriate public education and reach that child’s maximum potential,” says Lipsitt. “I do have children who were born with devastating impairments and I want that child to have the absolutely best quality of life that child can have.”

I want the same for my daughter. She deserves every chance to reach her potential. The bare minimum isn’t an option any more.

Twitter: @mfeighan