In a 9-0 ruling, the high court found that schools cannot hide behind budget constraints or other reasons to avoid providing programs to help children with special needs get an education.
The decision ended a 15-year battle initiated by the parents of Jeffrey Moore, who were forced to put their dyslexic son in private school — remortgaging their home to do it — after the North Vancouver school district shut down a diagnostic centre that could have helped him and he fell behind in school.
The Supreme Court found that unless school boards can provide compelling evidence to justify underfunding programs for the learning disabled, they must provide genuine help to those children, the Globe and Mail noted.
"Adequate special education is not a dispensable luxury," Justice Rosalie Abella wrote in the unanimous decision. "For those with severe learning disabilities, it is the ramp that provides access to the statutory commitment to education made to all children in British Columbia."
The ruling has the potential to handcuff school boards when they set or adjust funding for school programs, and presumably put pressure on provincial governments to bolster funding.
Widespread interest in the case is reflected in the long list of intervenors who participated in the Moores' Supreme Court appeal of a lower-court ruling that rejected their claim Jeffrey was a victim of discrimination. They argued without the diagnostic centre he could not get a proper education in the public system.
The case included the B.C. Teachers Federation, national disability organizations and human rights commissions from several provinces (it was sparked by a B.C. Human Rights Tribunal decision in favour of the Moores).
"I'm ecstatic," Yude Henteleff, a Winnipeg lawyer representing the Learning Disability Association of Canada, one of the intervenors, told the Globe. "This is a profoundly important victory. Time and time, school divisions say: 'We can't afford this.' Well, now they can't afford not to."
The decision means the parents of any child with a learning disability can demand action from their school board, Henteleff said.
Rick Moore, a bus driver, said this was a victory for all children like his son, who is now a successful plumber.
"This case is about the thousands of kids who can't afford a private school education and ... are stuck in the public school system; who end up dropping out and become a burden on society," he told the Globe.
Lesley Sargia said she hopes the ruling will benefit her nine-year-old son, Griffin Lajoie, who's been waiting months for the Toronto school authorities to provide resources to help him deal with a visual-spatial learning disorder diagnosed last year.
"I am over the moon that the Supreme Court has ruled that our kids will have access to resources that they need," she told the Globe. "It is a basic right. It is a reasonable expectation that children with learning differences be held to the same academic standards as their peers and that our kids graduate from public school being fully literate."
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The Ontario government intervened in the Moore case, warning that ruling in favour of the family (which included reimbursing them more than $100,000 for Jeffrey's private school tuition) would badly skew educational priorities.
"If this remedy is upheld by this court, private school tuition payment orders will be a widely sought and sanctioned alternative to requiring boards to provide appropriate accommodation within public schools," it warned.
The court noted in its ruling that, although the individual case of discrimination still needs to be proven, there can be wider ramifications of a case like Jeffrey's on the education system.
"It goes without saying that if the (North Vancouver) District is to avoid similar claims such as those Jeffrey brought, it will have to ensure that it provides a range of services for special needs students in accordance with the School Act and its related policies," Abella wrote.
In a Saturday editorial, the Globe suggested the high court's decision has opened a "Pandora's box" for Canadian school boards.
"From here on, schools, school boards or provinces could be forced to bleed other programs to meet court-ordered educational standards for special-needs students," the Globe said in an opinion broadly condemning the ruling as overstepping the court's authority when it comes to education decisions.
"The court appears to have been blind to the practical effects of its ruling. How could those effects be anything but massive after the court perhaps unwittingly defined adequacy, or 'meaningful access' to education, in a way that few if any school boards meet?"
It cited one Toronto school principal who said that, realistically, the system doesn't have the necessary support for learning-disabled children in every school.
But as Abella wrote, the issue is not whether a student like Jeffrey is entitled to this or that special program but his right to an access ramp to the education that is the right of all children.
"If (Jeffrey) is compared only to other special needs students, full consideration cannot be given to whether he had meaningful access to the education to which all students in British Columbia are entitled," Abella wrote. "This risks perpetuating the very disadvantage and exclusion the (Human Rights) Code is intended to remedy."
As Dalhousie University law professor A. Wayne MacKay told the Globe: "In my opinion, this may be the most important human-rights case in the last decade or so."