April 6, 2017
By Arla D. Cahill and Brian M. Block
On March 22, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its highly anticipated decision in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. The case posed the following question: what is the level of educational benefit that school districts must confer on children with disabilities to provide them with the free appropriate public education guaranteed by the IDEA?
Under the IDEA, students with learning disabilities are entitled to a “free appropriate public education,” (FAPE) but the meaning of an “appropriate” education had been elusive. In order to meet this mandate, the IDEA requires that a student receive an IEP. Over three decades ago in Board of Education v. Rowley, the Supreme Court determined that an IEP must provide “some educational benefit” to students with learning disabilities. In the years since, Congress amended the IDEA to strengthen the IEP and quality of education students must receive. However, courts around the country had authored diverging opinions about the educational standard schools must meet to discharge their obligation to provide a FAPE through the IEP. Some courts, including the appeals court that decided Endrew F., held that a school must only provide “merely more than a de minimus benefit.” But other courts, including the Third Circuit encompassing New Jersey, adhered to a more robust standard of “significant learning and meaningful benefit.”
The Supreme Court settled the issue by crafting the following standard: “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 circumstance.” The Court elaborated that the “IEP must aim to enable the child to make progress,” and cautioned that an IEP requires “careful consideration” of a “child’s present levels of achievement, disability, and potential for growth.” There is an expectation that a FAPE will include “integration in the regular classroom and individualized special education calculated to achieve advancement from grade to grade.” However, an “IEP need not aim for grade level advancement” if “that is not a reasonable prospect for a child.” The program must be “appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances.” A school must be able to offer a “cogent and responsive explanation for their decisions” concerning the IEP.
Endrew F. was brought on behalf of Endrew, a boy with autism who attended public school through the fourth grade with an IEP, but made little progress before his parents placed him in a private school that focused on autism and in which he started to succeed academically and behaviorally. Endrew’s parents sued, contending that their child was not afforded a FAPE with an IEP reasonably calculated to benefit Endrew, and were entitled to reimbursement for their private school costs. The Supreme Court vacated the appeals court’s decision that used the lesser standard and remanded the case for further proceedings in light of the new standard.