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Maximizing Potential is not Required

on Thu, 03/10/2016 - 19:35
At a recent IEP meeting I attended, a door near the meeting room had a poster stating that the school’s mission was “to educate its students to their fullest potential so they will become responsible, productive citizens in a global society.”1 A worthy mission, but quite different from the standard being applied in the meeting, where the school district was not required to maximize potential, only provide meaningful benefit. As the Eleventh Circuit explained, meaningful means nothing more than “’some’ or ‘adequate’ educational benefit.”  
 
This is one of the basic frustrations of many parents I meet. When trying to look good for the public, school districts talk the big talk. But the school district always talks down its responsibility when talking to particular parents whose students need special education. Many parents feel very frustrated and jerked around by what they see as a two-faced school district, making grand promises in public then refusing to follow through.  
 
So who is right? From a legal perspective, the school district is right that it only must provide a “basic floor of opportunity.”1 But that’s no excuse for being so ham-handed with managing expectations. Special education law expects the family and the district to collaborate to create the special education plan. That requires frank discussion of weaknesses and strengths of a student. School districts do not make it easier to have those difficult conversations by setting up expectations in public and then immediately walking them back in private.  
 
1JSK v. Hendry County Sch. Bd., 941 F.2d 1563, 1573 (11th Cir. 1991). Since I wrote this post, the Supreme Court has changed the law to require more than a basic floor. Nonetheless, maximizing student potential is not legally required.