The United States Supreme Court issued its opinion in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District RE-1 on March 22, 2017, which addressed the question of how to determine whether a child with disabilities has received appropriate educational benefits as required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
The Court’s unanimous decision vacated and remanded the Tenth Circuit’s ruling below, rejecting the court of appeal’s application of a “merely more than de minimis” standard for determining the adequacy of educational benefits provided to a child with disabilities. Instead, the Court’s opinion, delivered by Chief Justice Roberts, strengthened the general approach established thirty-five years ago in Board of Ed. of Hendrick Hudson Central School Dist., Westchester Cty. v. Rowley, providing that “[t]o meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an [Individualized Education Plan] reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” (Emphasis added.)
The 1982 case of Rowley involved a child, Amy, who overall performed well in a general education classroom despite her hearing impairment. Yet, when the school district refused to provide a sign language interpreter (in addition to special education and related services that were already provided), Amy’s parents sued, claiming their child was denied a FAPE. Thus, the Court was asked to confront the question of how to determine whether a child’s IEP is sufficient enough to meet the FAPE provision under the IDEA. The Court concluded that a bright-line rule for determining the adequacy of a child’s IEP would be inappropriate due to the broad spectrum of children with disabilities. Instead, the Court held that a school has met the requirement to provide access to a FAPE if the education to which a child receives access is “sufficient to confer some educational benefit” upon the child. Over time, circuit courts across the country have interpreted what “some educational benefit” looks like in practice, leading to a split of more lax and more rigorous standards.
Endrew F. presented a different scenario than Rowley. Endrew was diagnosed with autism when he was two years old and required more intensive special services at school. In spite of the services provided, Endrew was not succeeding in the general education classroom setting. Endrew’s parents believed that his IEP goals remained the same from year to year and were not “reasonably calculated to enable [Endrew] to receive educational benefits;” and as a result, Endrew was denied a FAPE. However, the District Court determined, and the Tenth Circuit affirmed, that “annual modifications to Endrew’s IEP objectives ‘were sufficient to show a pattern of, at the least, minimal progress.’”
The Tenth Circuit (as well as the Seventh and Eighth Circuits) interpreted the Rowley standard of “some educational benefit” to mean a child’s IEP is adequate as long as the educational benefit awarded is “merely…more than de minimis.” The Supreme Court disagreed, finding that the low threshold recognized by the Tenth Circuit is contrary to the original objective of the IDEA and Rowley. Yet, the Supreme Court also declined to adopt the family’s interpretation that the IDEA requires states to afford a child with disabilities educational opportunities equal to those offered to children without disabilities, viewing that requirement as wholly unworkable. Instead, the Court chose to continue to interpret the FAPE provision as it did in Rowley because Congress “has not materially changed the statutory definition of a FAPE since Rowley was decided.”
The Court reminds us that the IDEA was enacted to ensure that children with disabilities are not “sitting idly in regular classrooms” waiting to drop out. With this in mind, “progress” is expected for each student with a disability; yet, what constitutes “progress” will vary depending on the circumstances and unique needs of the particular student. For children with disabilities who are fully integrated into the regular education setting, like Amy, progress may appear more traditional—achievement of passing grades and advancement to the next grade level. However, children with disabilities that may not benefit from participation in a regular classroom, like Endrew, should still receive an “appropriately ambitious” education program tailored to meet their needs in order to receive a FAPE. In other words, whether the child is an Amy or an Endrew, the school district should develop an IEP that aims for the child to “meet challenging objectives.”
The case now goes back to the Tenth Circuit for further proceedings aligned with the Court’s opinion.