George Lucas Educational Foundation
Education Equity

New Supreme Court Decision Benefits Students With IEPs

A lawyer breaks down the jargon around the recent Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District ruling and shows how it benefits students.
Credit: twenty20.com/@jessika12180
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Children with special needs are guaranteed a “free, appropriate public education” (FAPE) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). When Congress enacted IDEA in 1975, the goal was to address the “perception that... handicapped children were either totally excluded from schools or sitting idly in classrooms waiting until they were old enough to drop out.”

The law offers funding to those states that agree to comply with two requirements. First, eligible children shall receive a FAPE either via specially designed instruction (or, more commonly, special education) or via related services. Second, the FAPE is provided through an individualized education program (IEP) specifically designed to meet a child’s unique needs.

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Under the law, each IEP is to be developed collaboratively with the child’s teachers, school administrative officials, and the child’s parents, and should contain:

  • A statement of the child’s present level of academic performance;
  • How the child’s disability affects his or her involvement and progress in the general education setting;
  • Measurable annual goals, including academic and functional goals; and
  • A description of how the child’s progress toward meeting those goals will be assessed.

Defining “Free, Appropriate Public Education”

There have been very few cases heard by the United States Supreme Court regarding what exactly “free, appropriate public education” means for children with disabilities under IDEA. In fact, there are only two. The first one did not have a broad impact.

In 1982, in Board of Education of Hendrick Hudson Central School District, Westchester County v. Rowley, the Supreme Court determined that the IDEA’s FAPE requirement was met if a student’s IEP was “reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits” and “to enable the child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade.”

Because the IEP in that case was clearly “reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits”—the child was excelling in her classes—the court declined to decide what “reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits” might look like for all students with disabilities under the IDEA.

Which brings us to the second case. The question of what “reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits” means came before the Supreme Court in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District.

Endrew’s Story

Endrew, a child on the autism spectrum, had been in the public school system receiving IEP services from preschool through fourth grade. As the IEPs from the school district changed little from year to year, his parents became concerned that his functional and academic progress was stalling. Based on a perceived inability of the school district to tailor his IEP to promote academic and functional progress, Endrew’s parents placed him in a private school that specialized in children on the autism spectrum. There he began to make progress.

Endrew’s parents then made a claim for reimbursement for private school tuition, on the grounds that the school district had failed to provide Endrew with a FAPE.

The claim was denied by the Colorado Department of Education. The federal district court affirmed the Department of Education’s decision, as did the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, applying the Supreme Court’s reasoning in the Rowley decision.

In its opinion, the Supreme Court determined that Endrew’s “making some progress,” found acceptable by the lower courts, was not “reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits,” noting that it was barely better than “sitting idly in classrooms waiting until they were old enough to drop out.” The court emphasized that an IEP is not a one-size-fits-all document and that instruction should be “specifically designed to meet a child’s unique needs with an individualized education plan,” based on close consideration of a child’s present level of achievement, the nature of the disability, and his or her potential for academic and functional growth.

The court set forth a new standard for IEPs that applies to all states receiving IDEA funding: To meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable the child to make progress appropriate to his or her circumstances. As the court said: “The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”

The Impact of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District

The true impact of this ruling will be very dependent on schools. Those schools that utilize the same boilerplate IEP format with the same strategies over and over, resulting in no real student progress, stand to be impacted much more than schools that already embrace unique and child-centered IEP development. This is good news for parents who want to ensure that their children get more tailored and appropriate services, and it could also empower schools that may have wanted to do more to change how the IDEA funds they receive are used.

Read the Supreme Court’s decision in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, published on March 22, 2017.