Under the Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), students with disabilities have the right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) tailored to their unique needs, which includes special education and related services. (20 U.S.C. §§ 1400(d)(1)(A) & 1401(9). Thirty five years ago, in Hendrick Hudson Central School District Board of Education v. Rowley, the United States Supreme Court held that the IDEA requires instruction that is “reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefit.” The Court declined to say just how much benefit would be adequate. Following Rowley, lower Courts were left grappling with the question as to how much benefit would be adequate. Should the educational benefit to students be “meaningful?” Are schools required to offer just “some” benefit? Or can the standard be met if educational benefits are little more than trivial?
On March 22, 2017, in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a higher standard of education for children with disabilities. Endrew centered on a child with autism and attention deficit disorder whose parents removed him from public school in fifth grade. He went on to make better progress in a private school. His parents argued that the individualized education plan provided by the public school was inadequate, and they sued to compel the school district to pay his private school tuition. The Supreme Court sided with the family, overturning a lower court ruling in the school district's favor.
In a unanimous 8-0 decision, the Court held that "appropriate" goes further than what the lower courts had held. The IDEA “requires an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” (Endrew F. v. Douglas Cty. Sch. Dist., 580 U.S., slip op. at 11 (March 22, 2017).) “This standard is “markedly more demanding than the ‘merely more than de minimis’ test.” (Id. at p. 14). “[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. 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.” (Citing Rowley, 458 U.S., at 179). The IDEA demands more.” (Id.).
Certain education groups, have opined that the decision will not have a big impact on district practices. Sasha Pudelski, a lobbyist for The School Superintendents Association (“AASA”) has stated that “the court decision was actually quite moderate…It is not going to be groundbreaking for districts. It’s a flexible standard that defers to the expertise of the schools.”
However, disability advocates applauded the decision as this case will help millions of students. For the 2013-14 school year, 6.5 million students—or 13 percent of the public-school population—received an Individual Education Plan (IEP). The Court’s decision increases the education expectations for children with disabilities and requires schools to consider each child’s individual strengths and weaknesses when writing an IEP.
As we move forward with Endrew, special education advocates must insist that School Districts comply with the holding. Current and comprehensive assessments are critical. Endrew mandates a heightened standard based on “careful consideration of the child’s present levels of achievement, disability and potential for growth.” (Endrew F., Id. at p. 12). The Court has rejected a de minimis standard and affirmed that the vision and intent of IDEA is that children with disabilities will make meaningful progress academically and achieve ‘appropriately ambitious’ objectives. Although it will take time to determine the full implications of Endrew, it is clear that schools can no longer provide a “one-size-fits-all” IEP.
Ms. Bahl-Sen works in alliance with Hope4Families, a non-profit Special Education law firm, that provides legal services to families in need, at no cost. Hope4Families assists parents/guardians of special needs school children in advocating for services from their school districts.