setting precedent

Inside one Colorado family’s long legal journey to affirm their son’s right to a meaningful education

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Jennifer was sitting on a plane at Denver International Airport last March when she got an email on her phone that made her want to scream with joy.

It was official. She and her husband Joe had won their long-running case against the Douglas County School District with a unanimous decision from the highest court in the land.

The landmark ruling — coming less than three months after Jennifer and Joe watched oral arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court’s chambers in Washington, DC — raised the standard schools must meet in educating students with disabilities.

It had been a decade since the couple’s frustrations first welled up over their older son Endrew’s stalled progress in elementary school and six years since they’d filed suit against their suburban Denver district in a case known as Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District.

Jennifer and Joe recently sat down with Chalkbeat to discuss the case, their first lengthy interview with a news organization. They asked that their last name not be used to preserve their family’s privacy, in keeping with their wishes throughout the court case.

Over the years, there had been reams of paperwork, multiple losses in the lower courts and lots of waiting. But on that Wednesday morning as Jennifer and her younger son were departing for a spring break trip to Texas, a brief email from the family’s lawyer changed everything.

“I kind of started to hyperventilate on the plane,” Jennifer recalled. “My first thought is, ‘Is this for real?’”

As other passengers boarded, reality set in and Jennifer called her husband to share the news. Joe was in the midst of dropping off Endrew, who was 17 at the time, at Firefly Autism House in Denver — the private school he’d attended since Jennifer and Joe had pulled him out of public school at the end of fourth grade.

“I got zero work done that day,” Joe recalled. “I just immediately read the decision twice. I started looking at, ‘What’s the news saying? What’s this mean?’”

What the 16-page decision meant was that the Supreme Court had raised the bar. It had thrown out a lower court standard requiring slightly more than minimal educational progress for special needs students.

The ruling held enormous significance for millions of students with disabilities across the country. The high court, speaking on the issue for the first time in more than 30 years, sent an unequivocal message to schools about the effort they needed to make in educating students with disabilities.

Chief Justice John Roberts, who authored the Supreme Court’s unanimous opinion, left no doubt about the court’s position on the inadequacy of the old standard.

“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 offered an education at all,” he wrote.

Languishing at school

Jennifer and Joe never set out to sue their school district.

“We didn’t want to pull him out of the school,” Joe said. “We didn’t want to take them to court. We didn’t want to do any of this. But we were pushed into a corner and had to — to get what he was entitled to by law and what he needed.”

As Endrew, who goes by Drew, got to third and then fourth grade, problems at school compounded. He would scream, climb over furniture and other children and sometimes run off school property, according to court documents. He had extreme fears of commonplace things — flies, spills and public restrooms.

For a few years early in Drew’s elementary school career, Jennifer and Joe had paid a private therapist to come into the school and consult with his teachers. But they said the district eventually halted the practice.

Asked why that practice was discontinued, district officials declined to answer. William Trachman, a lawyer for the district, wrote in an email that the district normally does “not discuss the details surrounding pending cases.”

As Drew hit third and fourth grade, anxiety pervaded their lives. The youngster was stressed and defensive. Jennifer would brace herself for the regular phone calls she received from school staff asking her to come in and calm Drew down — and twice to take him home. On the occasions he managed to run away from school, she feared for his safety.

Still, Drew’s Individualized Education Plan or IEP — a plan required for special education students under federal law — didn’t change. It contained the same basic goals and objectives as in previous years.

“… we didn’t get anything different than what he had been offered before in terms of services,” Jennifer said.

“He was being babysat,” Joe said.

The couple, who own a company that sells industrial equipment, tried to blame other factors for Drew’s troubles. They wondered if switching schools after second grade did it. Or the transition from one teacher to two. Perhaps the move to a year-round school schedule — six weeks on and three weeks off — snarled Drew’s sense of continuity.

Eventually, they decided it wasn’t any of those things. He simply wasn’t getting the kind of support he needed.

In May of Drew’s fourth-grade year, Joe and Jennifer withdrew him from public school and enrolled him at Firefly, a 25-minute drive from their Highlands Ranch home. Tuition was about $65,000 a year, which they paid in full. (Starting a couple years ago, their health insurance began covering about half the tuition.)

Jennifer and Joe noticed a dramatic difference in Drew within a month of the school switch.

“We had a different kid,” Joe said. “He’s happy … He’s not afraid of everything at school.”

Try, try again

About six months after Drew moved to Firefly, his parents approached the Douglas County School District about the prospect of re-enrolling him locally, with a new education plan informed by Firefly’s data and program.

“He had this huge growth and we came back and went, ‘Hey, let’s take what they learned. Let’s apply it over here and put Drew back (in public school).’ And their attitude was, ‘No, we’re going to do the same old thing. Here’s the exact same information again.’”

Trachman, the district’s lawyer, refuted that claim, saying in an email the district did craft a new plan for Drew and that the federal district court acknowledged that.

“The court has already noted that the two IEPs were, in fact, different,” he wrote. “For that reason, we can say that any contrary allegation is incorrect.”

Drew stayed at Firefly and in 2011, Jennifer and Joe filed a lawsuit asking to be reimbursed for the cost of Drew’s private school education. An administrative law judge rejected their request, siding with the school district. The same thing happened in federal district court and then the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals.

After the appeals court loss, Jennifer and Joe set their sights on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Tuition reimbursement was not the main issue anymore. It was about clarifying what it meant to provide a “free and appropriate education” under the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

“The minute it went to the Supreme Court our fight really changed,” said Joe. “It was no longer about getting something for Drew. It was helping define the law … because the law was not clear.”

While the Tenth Circuit court had ruled that “merely more than de minimus” progress — just more than the minimum — was enough for students with disabilities, other appeals courts around the county interpreted the law differently.

For Jennifer, seeking a hearing from the nation’s highest court was a no-brainer.

“It was such an opportunity to hopefully make a difference for six-and-a-half-million kids on IEPs,” she said.

In a brief arguing that the Supreme Court shouldn’t accept the case, lawyers for the Douglas County School District wrote that establishing a new standard could lead to more lawsuits.

They wrote that Jennifer and Joe’s petition to the high court was “at most, a complaint from the borderline of a complex and fact-intensive area of law. … Changing a border will not eliminate borderline cases. If the new border cannot be articulated with greater clarity than the old border, borderline cases will increase.”

The court accepted the case on Sept. 29, 2016, the day after Drew’s 17th birthday.

“We were ecstatic,” Joe said.

The decision

When the Supreme Court’s decision came out March 22, advocates for students with disabilities were thrilled.

Jennifer and Joe’s lawyer, Jack Robinson, called it a “game-changer.”

The ruling soundly rejected the old standard, saying it allowed instruction that aimed so low it was tantamount to sitting idly until students were old enough to drop out.

“The IDEA demands more,” read the opinion, referring to the 1975 law. “It requires an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

It didn’t go quite as far as Jennifer and Joe had hoped, but it was far above the Tenth Circuit standard.

After the ruling came out, Erin Kane, the interim superintendent of the Douglas County School District, sent a letter to district parents. Jennifer and Joe received it, too, since their younger son is still in school there.

“We, in DCSD, welcome the ruling as we do not believe in applying a ‘more than de minimis’ standard to our students — we are dedicated to setting high standards for every one of our students,” she wrote.

Kane also noted “that the Supreme Court Justices did not say that DCSD lost the case. They have simply sent the Endrew F. case back to the lower courts where it will be reconsidered with this new standard in mind.”

When he read the letter, Joe erupted in anger.

“I cannot believe you’re saying these things,” he recalled thinking. “This makes no sense.”

Both parties are still waiting for the final ruling from the lower court.

Ripple effects

His parents describe Drew, who recently turned 18, as a homebody. He’d rather stay in and eat peanut butter and jelly in comfy clothes than dress up for a meal out. He loves cats and his favorite video game is Mario Kart.

In what his parents describe as the kind of quirk that often accompanies autism, he thrills in counting down the days till Pixar releases its movies — titles like Cars 3 and Toy Story 4 — on DVD.

As far as the case that bears his name, Drew doesn’t know a lot about it.

“He’s not to the point where he could ever understand the significance or the process or anything,” said Joe.

The Supreme Court’s decision, and even the pending decision from the lower court, won’t affect Drew’s education. His parents expect he’ll stay at Firefly until he’s 21 because they are happy with the school.

Still, Jennifer and Joe said they feel heartened by the potential ripple effects of the Supreme Court decision.

In fact, even before the ruling last spring, they saw changes they attribute to their case. One day when Jennifer dropped Drew off at Firefly, she saw a Douglas County school bus pull up for the first time. It was a bittersweet sight.

“It made me mad because it felt like a slap in the face,” Jennifer said. “But it also made me feel good for those parents.”

District officials didn’t answer directly when asked by Chalkbeat whether any Douglas County students attend Firefly, but said, “… the school district occasionally places students in private schools to comply with federal law.”

Officials at Firefly, however, confirmed that Douglas County School District is one of several districts that contract with the private school.

Jennifer and Joe believe the Supreme Court’s new standard has sent a strong message to schools and will empower parents of children with disabilities.

“It put the schools on notice,” Joe said. “You have to provide something that means something. … You don’t provide a child a meaningless education. It doesn’t matter whether they are special needs or not.”

While Jennifer and Joe acknowledge that some schools are already providing a good education to students with disabilities, they believe many could do better. Jennifer said they’ve known families who have moved out of state because they can’t get the right services for their kids.

“Most people cannot continue to fight it, and honestly, I think that’s what most school districts are hoping for,” she said.

Jennifer and Joe said they kept going because they had the money, the stubborn streak and they wanted to do the right thing for Drew and other kids like him.

“We lost a lot of little battles, but we won the war,” Joe said.

Jennifer laughs remembering how things unfolded on the airplane the day she got the news. Her younger son, who was 11 at the time, asked if she was crying.

“Yes, we just won,” she told him.

“I think you’re overreacting,” he said.

“No,” she said, “I think this is exactly how I’m supposed to react.’”

NO DEAL

Talks collapse, Denver teachers to vote on strike

PHOTO: Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat

The Denver teachers union will hold a vote on whether to strike after months of negotiations over pay ended in deadlock.

The bargaining team of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association and officials with Denver Public Schools met all day Friday and exchanged several proposals, but they could not close a gap of more than $8 million between the two sides.

Around 10:30 p.m., Superintendent Susana Cordova said the district’s analysis found the union’s latest proposal would actually widen the money gap between the two sides, but said the district wanted to keep talking.

“It’s late, but it’s not midnight,” she said, referring to the deadline to reach an agreement.

Rob Gould, a special education teacher and member of the bargaining team, ended the discussions at that point.

“We came here tonight in good faith,” he said. “We came to correct a longstanding problem in Denver. We made movement tonight, and we’re going to talk to our teachers tomorrow.”

The room packed with red-shirted teachers erupted in cheers. Some were also crying.

Becca Hendricks, a math teacher at Emily Griffith Technical College and a member of the bargaining unit, said she felt mixed emotions at the prospect of a strike: excited at the ability to make a big change for teachers and weighed down by the responsibility.

“It doesn’t feel good,” she said. “It impacts a lot of lives.”

Cordova said she was disappointed that the union called off talks.

“We’re not at the end of the day,” she said after the meeting broke up. “We were really willing to keep talking.”

For Hendricks, it didn’t seem like there was anywhere to go.

“It became clear that the money was not a place they were going to move,” she said. “That’s a hard sticking point for us. We’ve had little to no increases for so many years, so it will take a lot of money to make up all the damage that has accrued.”

A strike requires a vote of two-thirds of the union members who cast votes, which represents about 64 percent of Denver teachers, according to the union. Teachers can join the union even on the day of the vote, which will occur on Saturday and Tuesday, but they must be members to vote.

Cordova said she would ask the state to intervene if there is a positive strike vote. The state could require the two sides to do mediation, use a fact-finder, or hold hearings to try to reach a resolution. But the state can also decline to intervene if officials don’t believe they can be productive. That intervention would delay a strike but not prevent one if the two sides still can’t agree.

The earliest that a strike could occur is Jan. 28.

Denver teachers are feeling emboldened by a surge in activism by their peers across the country that began last year and continues to build. The vote here comes as a teachers strike in Los Angeles enters its second week.

The Denver Classroom Teachers Association and Denver Public Schools are not negotiating their master contract — that deal was finalized in 2017 — but rather the ProComp system, which provides teachers bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

Denver voters approved a special tax to pay for these bonuses in 2005, which today generates around $33 million a year.

That system has been through several iterations but has been a source of frustration for many teachers because their pay was hard to understand and changed based on factors they could not control. District officials and the majority of the school board believe it is critical to keep bonuses for teachers who work in high-poverty schools as a way to retain those teachers. Turnover is a major problem in these schools and has big effects on students.

The average Denver teacher earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

Both sides’ proposals moved teachers to much more predictable salary schedules that allowed for reliable raises if teachers stayed with the district and earned more education. The district proposal put an additional $20.5 million into teacher compensation, while the union’s last offer put an extra $28 million toward compensation.

The district spends about $436 million a year on teacher pay. The money for the raises would come from a combination of increased state funding and cuts to central office staff that Cordova described as deep and painful.

In addition to the total amount of money, the status of those high-poverty bonuses was a major sticking point. The district wants higher bonuses, and the union wants to put more of that money into base pay.

“To be able to bridge the gap between what is the difference in our two proposals is more than the $8 million that they were talking about because we were not willing to compromise on the need to recruit and retain teachers in our high poverty schools,” Cordova said. “We know for purposes of equity that it is so important to retain teachers in our schools that need them the most.”

But union members argued that a more reliable way to keep these teachers, who are often relatively early in their career, would be to offer them ways to more quickly increase their salary and have more stability in their economic situation. They said every other district in the region uses a reliable salary schedule, and Denver should, too.

That stance marks a major departure from some of the ideas in ProComp, among a suite of policies that have earned Denver a national reputation as an education reform hotbed over the last two decades, though both sides’ proposals met the letter of the ballot language.

Hendricks described driving a Lyft, delivering food, and tutoring to make ends meet, despite having 11 years of experience, a master’s degree, and working with at-risk students at the Emily Griffith campus. She had to move out of Denver and still has a roommate at 33 years old.

Hendricks said the union’s proposal offers higher lifetime earnings and the ability to earn raises more quickly. Cordova argues the district proposal is the stronger one for teachers, representing the largest single increase for teachers in district history and one that will give Denver teachers higher lifetime earners than those in any other metro area district.

Both sides will be trying to make their case over the next four days to teachers weighing their own compensation, the best interests of their colleagues and students, their savings accounts, and other factors in a strike vote.

More than 5,300 teachers and specialized service providers, such as social workers, psychologists, and speech language pathologists work in 147 district-managed schools. Roughly 71,000 students attend those schools.

Another 21,000 students attend Denver’s 60 charter schools.  Charter teachers are not union members, and those schools will not be affected by whatever happens next.

Cordova said she was committed to keeping schools open and providing a quality educational experience for students even if there is a strike. In Los Angeles, where teachers are also on strike, many students are watching movies and playing games during the school day. The district will offer higher pay to substitute teachers and deploy central office staff to classrooms with prepared lesson plans, she said.

Students who get subsidized lunches will still be able to eat at school.

counter-point

Four takeaways from New York City’s response to discrimination charges in specialized high schools lawsuit

PHOTO: Flickr
Brooklyn Technical is one of the city's prestigious specialized high schools.

New York City lawyers are asking a judge to allow the education department to move forward with admissions changes aimed at better integrating the city’s elite specialized high schools, saying the tweaks are not meant to discriminate against Asian students.

Instead, lawyers for the city argue the changes serve the “most disadvantaged” students, leading to “greater geographic and socioeconomic diversity” in the schools, “which may in turn increase racial diversity.”

At issue: The city’s plan to expand the Discovery program, which offers admission to students who score below the cutoff on the exam that currently stands as the sole entrance criteria to eight specialized high schools. The city also wants to change who qualifies for the program, limiting Discovery to students who attend schools where at least 60 percent of their peers are economically needy. (Previously, eligibility was based only on each students’ individual need.)

In December, Asian-American parents and organizations sued the city, claiming the reforms would discriminate against their children. They asked for a preliminary injunction, which would prevent the changes from going forward until the court case is decided — and affect the current admissions cycle already underway for eighth-graders enrolling in high school next year.

Asian students make up 62 percent of enrollment in the specialized high schools, but only 16 percent of students citywide. Meanwhile, black and Hispanic students comprise just 10 percent of enrollment in the eight schools, but 70 percent of enrollment citywide.

The city’s lawyers make a number of arguments in defense of the admissions overhaul, claiming the plaintiffs can’t bring the case because they don’t have the proper legal standing, and that it’s in the government’s interest to promote school diversity.

We already know the suit is likely to cause a delay in when students receive their high school admissions offer letters — dragging out what is already a stressful process for many families. Here are four other takeaways from the city’s response, which you can read here.

We finally know how many students will be admitted through Discovery this year, if the expansion is allowed to move forward.

Enrollment through the Discovery programs is expected to grow to 13 percent of seats at specialized high schools this summer, city lawyers wrote. That would bring the total number of students admitted through Discovery to 528, more than double last summer’s class of 252.

City leaders have previously said Discovery would be expanded gradually to eventually account for 20 percent of seats by the 2020-2021 school year. But it had been unclear until now what this year’s expansion numbers would be.

It’s uncertain whether the expansion will work as city leaders hope.

The city projects that black and Hispanic enrollment at specialized high schools would increase only modestly under the full Discovery expansion: from 9 percent to 16 percent. But city lawyers called that a “rough prediction, unlikely to definitively predict the future ethnic and racial composition of the students.”

The city’s modeling didn’t account for how many students might turn down offers to enroll in Discovery, according to court filings.

Of course, it’s possible the city is playing up the uncertainty of demographic changes for the purposes of the court fight.

Years later, a federal civil rights investigation into the specialized high schools’ admissions process is still open.

In 2012, the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and other organizations filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. Department of Education over the lack of diversity at the city’s specialized high schools.

The complaint argued that the admissions test for the sought-after schools had a disparate impact on black and Hispanic students and also took aim at the city for letting the Discovery program wither. (By 2011, only four of the high schools participated in Discovery, according to court records.)

Although the complaint hasn’t made headlines in years, it’s still under investigation, city lawyers wrote.

The Office of Civil Rights “has requested and received from DOE numerous documents and had interviewed a number of witnesses,” according to court records.

Some light was shed on how the Discovery expansion was crafted behind the scenes.

For years, Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to tackle admissions reform for the specialized high schools — but he waited until his second term to announce the proposal that’s now being challenged in court. Now we know a little more about how the current proposal was drafted.

The plan to expand Discovery and change eligibility was developed by a “decision-making group” of unnamed officials and led by Deputy Chancellor Josh Wallack, according to a statement Wallack submitted to the court. The group, in turn, recommended the changes to the schools chancellor, Richard Carranza.

“I believe the decision-making group’s recommendation was decisive in the chancellor’s decision to expand the Discovery program and adopt the revised criteria,” Wallack’s statement says.