Supreme Court’s Evolving Approach to Special Education

by Haight Brown & Bonesteel LLP
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In Endrew F., et al. v. Douglas County School District (No. 15-827), the Supreme Court of the United States expanded on its long-standing interpretation of the substantive right to a “free appropriate public education” (known as FAPE) for children with disabilities under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In its attempt to define the adequacy of education required under IDEA, the Court maintained the appropriateness of a child’s progress should still be determined on a case-by-case basis, but that the progress must certainly be more than “de minimis” to be adequate.

Endrew F. was diagnosed with autism at age two, and attended school in Douglas County School District in Colorado from preschool through fourth grade. Each year, an individualized education program (“IEP”) was prepared for Endrew in accordance with the requirements of IDEA. Pursuant to the Court’s landmark case Board of Ed. of Hendrick Hudson Central School Dist., Westchester Cty. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (1982) (“Rowley”), an IEP must be “reasonably tailored to the unique needs” of a particular child.

By Endrew’s fourth grade year his parents had become dissatisfied with his progress pursuant to his previous IEPs, and believed the proposed IEP for his fifth grade year showed little difference. They accordingly enrolled Endrew at Firefly Autism House, a private school, for his fifth grade year. They reported the behavioral intervention plan implemented by the private school, which identified Endrew’s problematic behaviors and set out specific strategies for addressing them, caused Endrew to have significantly improved behavior and academic progress.

Endrew’s parents filed a complaint with the Colorado Department of Education seeking reimbursement for Endrew’s private school tuition. They contended the final IEP proposed by the school district was not “reasonably calculated to enable [Endrew] to receive educational benefits” and that Endrew had therefore been denied a FAPE. An administrative law judge (“ALJ”) disagreed and denied them relief. On review in federal District Court, the ALJ’s decision was affirmed. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals further affirmed this decision, holding that pursuant to Rowley, IDEA only requires instruction to be calculated to confer “some educational benefit” which it interpreted as merely “more than de minimis.”

However, the Supreme Court, in an 8-0 ruling, vacated the Tenth Circuit’s decision and remanded, firmly rejecting the school district’s contention that any educational benefit conferred in an IEP, however minimal, would satisfy the IDEA mandate. In effect, the Court limited the Rowley holding to the facts of that particular case.

The Court held in order for a school to meet its obligation under IDEA, it “must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” It found that Rowley “expressly declined ‘to establish any one test for determining the adequacy of educational benefits’” under the Act, and that a new framework for what constitutes an “adequate” educational benefit under the Act was appropriate. However, the Court notably went no further, asserting it would not create a bright-line rule for what “appropriate” progress looks like on a case-by-case basis.

Overall, the Endrew F. decision demonstrates the Supreme Court’s evolving approach to special education under IDEA, and has the potential to impact the millions of students with disabilities across the country by providing greater assurances that children are getting the individualized education tailored to their specific needs.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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