Earlier today, the U.S. Supreme Court answered a question that it had deferred 35 years ago in its seminal opinion on education for children with disabilities—Board of Edn. of Hendrick Hudson Central School Dist. v. Rowley.
In Rowley, the court concluded that the guarantee of a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in what is now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is met if a child’s individualized education program (IEP) sets out a program that is “reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits.” However, the court did not set a standard for determining what level of educational benefit is sufficient to provide a child with a disability a FAPE.
That open question has now been answered in Chief Justice John Roberts’s opinion in the case Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. In order to provide a FAPE, “a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”
Endrew F. was diagnosed with autism at age two. He attended school in the Douglas County School District from preschool through fourth grade under an IEP updated each year. When the school district presented its proposed IEP for fifth grade, Endrew’s parents felt that it was essentially the same as his past IEPs, under which he was not making educational progress.
Endrew’s parents removed him from the district and enrolled him at a private school that specializes in educating children with autism. Endrew’s parents subsequently asked for reimbursement for Endrew’s tuition at his new school on the basis that he was denied a FAPE because the district’s IEP did not meet the Rowley standard.
The administrative law judge for the state of Colorado disagreed. Endrew’s parents sought review of the decision in federal district court, which affirmed the administrative law judge’s decision. The district court said that modifications to Endrew’s previous IEPs showed “a pattern of, at least, minimal progress.” The district court decision was affirmed by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, relying on language in Rowley that stated that instruction and services to children with disabilities must be calculated to confer “some educational benefit.” The court stated that a child’s IEP is adequate provided that it is calculated to confer an educational benefit that is “merely . . . more than de minimis.”
In its decision, the Supreme Court expressly rejected the standard proposed by the 10th Circuit. The court stated that 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.” Quoting Rowley, the court noted that, for children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to “sitting idly . . . awaiting the time when they were old enough to ‘drop out.’”
The court declined to elaborate on what appropriate progress means on a case-by-case basis. It stated that the adequacy of an IEP depends on the circumstances of the child for whom it was created.
Finally, the court cautioned that the absence of a bright-line rule is not an invitation to courts to substitute their own notions of educational policy for those of the school authorities they review. The opinion concludes that IDEA “vests [school authorities] with responsibility for decisions of critical importance to the life of a disabled child. The nature of the IEP process … ensures that parents and school representatives will fully air their respective opinions on the degree of progress a child’s IEP should pursue. . . . [S]chool authorities will have … a complete opportunity to bring their expertise and judgment to bear on areas of disagreement.” Courts reviewing disputes about IEPs after this process may “fairly expect those authorities to be able to offer a cogent and responsive explanation for their decisions that shows the IEP” meets the standard set by this decision.