On March 22, 2017, the United States Supreme Court, in an 8-0 ruling, redefined the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s (IDEA) standard for educational benefit. In Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, the question presented to the Supreme Court was whether the “educational benefit” provided by a school district must be “merely more than de minimis” or “meaningful” to satisfy the requirements for a free appropriate public education (FAPE). The Supreme Court rejected the “merely more than de minimis test” held by the 10th Circuit. In his opinion, Chief Justice Roberts stated 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.” School districts must give students with disabilities the chance to make meaningful, “appropriately ambitious” progress, the Supreme Court concluded.
The Court made the following holding: “ to meet a substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances;  When a child is fully integrated in the regular classroom, providing a FAPE that meets the unique needs of a child with a disability, 20 U.S.C.S. § 1401, typically means providing a level of instruction reasonably calculated to permit advancement through the general curriculum;  If progressing smoothly through the regular curriculum is not a reasonable prospect for a child, his IEP need not aim for grade-level advancement, but must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances. This standard is markedly more demanding than a “merely more than de minimis” test for educational benefit.
The IDEA offers States federal funds to assist in education children with disabilities. The Act conditions that funding on compliance with certain statutory requirements, including the requirement that States provide every eligible child a “free appropriate public education,” or FAPE, by means of a uniquely tailored “individualized education program,” or IEP. 20 U.S.C. §§1401(9)(D), 1412(a)(1).
The Court first addressed the FAPE requirement in Board of Ed. of Hendrick Hudson Central School Dist., Westchester Cty. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 102 S. Ct. 3034, 73 L. Ed. 2d 690. The Court held that the Act guarantees a substantively adequate program of education to all eligible children, and that this requirement is satisfied if the child’s IEP sets out an education program that is “reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits.” Id. at 207, 102 S. Ct. 3034 73 L.3d 2d 690. For children fully integrated in the regular classroom, this would typically require an IEP “reasonably calculated to enable the child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade.” Id. at 204, 102 S. Ct. 3034, 73 L.Ed. 2d 690. Because the IEP challenged in Rowley plainly met this standard, the Court declined to “establish any one test for determining the adequacy of education benefits conferred upon all children covered by the Act,” instead “confining its analysis” to the facts of the case before it. Id. at 202, 102 S.Ct. 3034, 73 L.Ed. 2d 690.
In Endrew F., the Petitioner was a child with autism, who received annual IEPs in the Respondent Douglas County School District from preschool through fourth grade. By fourth grade, Endrew’s parents believed his academic and functional progress had stalled. When the school district proposed a fifth grade IEP that resembled those from past years, Endrew’s parents removed him from public school and enrolled him in a specialized private school, where he made significant progress. School district representatives later presented Endrew’s parents with a new fifth grade IEP, but they considered it no more adequate than the original plan. They then sought reimbursement for Endrew’s private school tuition by filing a complaint under the IDEA with the Colorado Department of Education. Their claim was denied, and a Federal District court affirmed that determination. The Tenth Circuit also affirmed. That court interpreted Rowley to establish a rule that a child’s IEP is adequate as long as it is calculated to confer an “educational benefit that is merely…more than de minimis,” 798 F.3d 1329, 1338, and concluded that Endrew’s IEP had been “reasonably calculated to enable him to make some progress,” id., at 1342. The court accordingly held that Endrew had received a FAPE.
The United States Supreme Court disagreed with the lower courts, and held that “to meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances. The Court acknowledged that Rowley did not provide concrete guidance with respect to a child who is not fully integrated in the regular classroom and not able to achieve on grade level. However, a child’s IEP need not aim for grade-level advancement if that is not a reasonable prospect. But that educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances, just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most children in the regular classroom. The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives. This standard is more demanding than the “merely more than de minimis” test applied by the Tenth Circuit. It cannot be right that the IDEA generally contemplates grade-level advancement for children with disabilities who are fully integrated in the regular classroom, but is satisfied with barely more than de minimis progress for children who are not.
School districts are now held to a higher standard. “Meaningful” no longer means some educational benefit. The District must provide a free and appropriate education to qualifying special needs students, and give them an opportunity to make appropriately ambitious progress. In other words, school districts must be “appropriately ambitious” in their efforts to provide free, appropriate education to meet the learning needs of all special needs students. For families of students with disabilities, this means that school districts will have a higher bar in providing appropriate services including private placement.e held to a higher standard now. “Meaningful” no longer means “some educational benefit.” The District must provide a free and appropriate education to qualifying special needs students, and give them an opportunity to make appropriately ambitious progress.
The decision in Endrew F. could have far-reaching implications for the 6.5 million students with disabilities in the United States.
If you are a parent or guardian of a special needs student and have concerns about his or her IEP, please feel free to contact MDK Law. MDK Law is based out of Bellevue, Washington, and we have attorneys experienced in education law who are licensed in Washington, California, New York, Texas, and Oregon.
By Courtney D. Bhatt, attorney admitted in California and Washington