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Blog:  Expert Corner

How I Explain the Idea of “Chevy vs. Cadillac” Special Education

Expert Corner blog post by Lindsay Jones
Sep 14, 2015

Teacher helping a student with the aid of a digital tablet

Let’s say your child is eligible for special education. What types of services does she deserve in her IEP?

From my perspective, she deserves the best that public education can offer. Top-of-the-line services and supports. Everything she needs to reach her full potential.

Unfortunately, the law doesn’t say that. The law says she’s entitled to an “appropriate” education. And that doesn’t always translate into the “best” one.

The law I’m referring to is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). That’s the main federal law covering special education.

IDEA provides your child a “free appropriate public education.” Free, public and education are pretty straightforward. In my experience as a lawyer, that’s not where disagreements happen. Parents and schools usually disagree over what “appropriate” means.

Here’s what IDEA says about that term:

  1. Special education must be designed to meet your child’s unique needs.
  2. Your child can get services to help him benefit from special education.

That helps a little. But it doesn’t give specifics on the quality and type of services schools are required to provide under the law.

When it comes to those details, IDEA doesn’t say much. That’s partly intentional. Congress wanted to leave this area to be developed by the states and courts.

In some ways, that has happened. The best-known court case is Board of Education of Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley.

The case involved a deaf student who was an excellent lip reader. Her parents asked for an interpreter, but the school said she didn’t need one because she was doing well in school. Her parents countered that she could be doing better and wasn’t reaching her full potential.

In the end the U.S. Supreme Court sided with the school, saying the law requires schools to provide a “basic floor of opportunity.” It doesn’t require them to “maximize” a child’s potential.

Then, in a U.S. Court of Appeals case involving a child with learning disabilities, the court used the following analogy:

[IDEA] requires that … schools provide the educational equivalent of a serviceable Chevrolet to every [qualified] student…. [Schools are] not required to provide a Cadillac.

Since then, a lot of courts (and schools) have used these exact words. The Chevy vs. Cadillac analogy—and the language of the law—give a rough idea of what kids are entitled to.

In all my years working with parents, this has been one of the hardest subjects to discuss. Parents naturally want to know what their child deserves, and to me, answer is “the best.” But unfortunately the law doesn’t talk about what kids deserve. It talks about what they have a right to.

Your child has a right to an education individualized to her unique needs. That means services that give your child an educational benefit.

These services don’t necessarily have to be the best possible. They’re a “floor of opportunity” as the Supreme Court said—or as some courts say, a serviceable Chevy, not a Cadillac.

The good news is that’s not the end of the story. Deciding on services for a child is a case-by-case decision by the IEP team, which includes you—the parent.

I’ve been in many, many discussions with schools. Every time parents and schools have disagreed, it’s been an extended negotiation to figure out what’s right for a child.

As a parent, your best strategy is to treat it that way—as a negotiation. Look at what’s working for your child and what services could help. If you see a service you think could help, make sure you have the information and data supporting that service. Then make your case to the school.

Ask good, informed questions. If possible, find win-win solutions. And, in cases where you can’t agree with the school, use your dispute resolution options.

All this is not to say you can’t push for the best. You can! But to be successful, it’s important to understand the rules.

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About the Blogger

Portrait of Lindsay Jones

Lindsay Jones is vice president and chief policy and advocacy officer for the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

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