March 22, 2017: Supreme Court Clarifies “FAPE” Standard In Endrew F. Decision

Today, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected a lower court’s decision that a child’s IEP is adequate as long as it is calculated to confer an “educational benefit [that is] … more than de minimis.”

The 8-0 decision came in Endrew F. v. Douglas Co. School District Re-1, which involves a child in Colorado with autism. Endrew received special education services outlined in his IEPs at a public school, but his parents believed that his academic and functional progress had stalled by fourth grade and claimed that he had been denied a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”). They unilaterally placed him in a specialized private school and sought reimbursement for the tuition from the district under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”).

The Colorado Department of Education ruled in favor of the school district and denied the parents’ claim and, on appeal, the U. S. District Court affirmed this decision in favor of the district. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit also affirmed the decision. In doing so, the 10th Circuit interpreted the Supreme Court’s 1982 landmark decision in Board of Education of Hendrick Hudson Central School Dist., Westchester Co., v. Rowley and determined that Endrew had received a FAPE because his IEP at the public school had been “reasonably calculated to enable [him] to make some progress.”

The parents appealed again, this time to the U.S. Supreme Court.  Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Roberts stated 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 noted that this standard is “markedly more demanding than the ‘merely more than de minimis’ test” applied by the 10th Circuit. “When all is said and done, 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,” Justice Roberts noted. The Court, however, declined to adopt the higher standard urged by the parents that a FAPE must provide a student with a disability with “opportunities to achieve academic success, attain self-sufficiency, and contribute to society that are substantially equal to the opportunities afforded children without disabilities.”

For a child fully integrated into regular classrooms, the opinion states that an IEP typically should be “reasonably calculated to enable the child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade,” although the Court cautioned that this should not be interpreted as an inflexible rule. A child who is not fully integrated into regular classrooms, the Court noted, should be provided with an educational program that is “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 Court concluded that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”

The Court noted that its decision does not elaborate on “what ‘appropriate’ progress will look like from case to case” because the adequacy of any given IEP depends on the unique circumstances of the student involved. Further, the Court – citing Rowley –cautioned that: “This absence of a bright-line rule, however, should not be mistaken for ‘an invitation to the courts to substitute their own notions of sound educational policy for those of the school authorities which they review.’” Deference should be given to school authorities in the application of their expertise and exercise of judgment.

Today’s decision vacates the judgment of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit and sends the case back to the lower court for further proceedings consistent with the decision.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Endrew F. v. Douglas Co. School District Re-1 can be found here: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/16pdf/15-827_0pm1.pdf

If you have any questions about this decision and its potential impact on your school district or special education joint agreement, please contact any of our attorneys by e-mail or by telephone at (630) 313-4750.