On January 11, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in one of the most significant special education cases in past three decades. In the 1982 case Board of Education v. Rowley, the Supreme Court determined that an individualized education program (IEP) must be “reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits.” Since then, federal courts have weighed in on educational benefits, some determining that a minimum standard, de minimis, is enough, while others, including the Sixth Circuit (Deal v. Hamilton Bd. of Ed., No. 03-5396, 6th Cir. 2004), have held that a meaningful educational benefit is needed. With federal circuits divided on this federal issue, the Supreme Court agreed to hear the case at hand. The question before the Court is as follows:

What level of educational benefit must school districts confer on children with disabilities to provide them with the free appropriate public education guaranteed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)?

Endrew F., who goes by the name Drew, is a student with autism in Colorado. He was placed on an IEP from preschool through fourth grade. His proposed IEP for fifth grade contained goals that his parents say too closely resembled the goals from previous years. Dissatisfied with the progress Drew was making in public school, his parents withdrew him and enrolled him in private school.

Drew’s parents filed a complaint with Colorado’s Department of Education, claiming that Drew had been deprived of a free appropriate public education (FAPE). The parents also claimed that Drew had made academic, social, and behavioral progress in private school. They asked to be reimbursed for the cost of his private schooling, per IDEA, which provides for reimbursement of private school tuition and related expenses if a public school cannot meet the educational needs of a student with a disability. Drew’s parents and the school district argued their case in an administrative hearing, then in a federal district court, and finally on appeal in the Tenth Circuit Court. All of the rulings were in favor of the school district, finding that the public school had provided Drew with FAPE, that he had made “some academic progress” which was “more than de minimis,” and that his IEP was “substantively adequate.”

IDEA grants students with disabilities with the right to receive “appropriate” special education and related services at public expense. The IEP must be designed to provide for this “appropriate public education” under IDEA. However, IDEA does not define the term “appropriate,” nor does it define the required level of educational benefit.

Clearly, the law requires that special education be designed to each child’s individual needs and that schools provide services to benefit special education students. How far schools must go to benefit students, however, remains unclear.

The 1982 Rowley case involved a deaf student who was an excellent lip reader. Her parents asked for an interpreter, but the school said she was doing well enough that she didn’t need one. Her parents contended that she was not reaching her full potential, but the Supreme Court held that a school is not required to maximize each student’s potential. After the Rowley decision in 1982, many federal courts used the analogy that schools provide the educational equivalent of “a serviceable Chevrolet” but not a “Cadillac.”

The level of educational benefit therefore remains unclear and undefined, which results in inconsistent federal court decisions. The standards in federal court range from merely more than a minimum benefit, to some benefit, to a meaningful benefit. The Endrew v. Douglas case currently in the Supreme Court goes beyond the two extremes of minimum benefit and maximum potential and focuses specifically on the level of educational benefit required of schools under IDEA.

The Supreme Court requested input from the federal government, which urged the Court to reverse the Tenth Circuit’s ruling, noting that it “is not consistent with the text, structure, or purpose of the IDEA … and it has the effect of depriving children with disabilities of the benefits Congress has granted them by law.”

A report summarizing the January 11 Supreme Court arguments notes that one thing was relatively clear: “The justices were dissatisfied with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit’s ruling that school districts can satisfy federal education law as long as they offer a student with a disability an educational program that provides him or her with a benefit that is more than merely de minimis, or non-trivial.” The justices were also concerned with imposing additional costs on school districts by requiring them to provide increased services and creating educational standards without being educational experts. They considered the idea of flexibility in IDEA, possibly tailoring special education to the student rather than to the grade level.

Counsel for the U.S. Solicitor General argued that IDEA requires a program “aimed at significant educational progress in light of the child’s circumstances,” which led to discussion among the justices about the right words and adjectives to describe the standard. While Justice Sotomayer thought that IDEA “provides enough to set a clear standard,” Justice Roberts concluded the law has “really nothing concrete” for courts to review.

Neal Katyal, the attorney for the school district, argued that the level of “some benefit” is the same as “more than merely de minimis,” and this is the level he was advocating. Justice Breyer noted that IDEA has been amended so that an IEP is designed for students to “make progress in general education” and concluded that “some benefit” along with “make progress” equals more than a minimum standard. Katyal noted that the more-than-minimum standard has worked for many years, and Justice Ginsburg hinted that this standard had no precedent for the Court and could be replaced with something more stringent.

The U.S. Department of Education proposed a standard that school districts offer a program “aimed at significant educational progress in light of the child’s circumstances,” which the justices seemed to regard as most consistent with existing law.

Drew has garnered support from organizations such as the National Center for Learning Disabilities and the Parents Education Network in addition to more than a hundred members of Congress. Without taking sides, the National Association of State Directors of Special Education filed a legal brief saying that schools already provide a “meaningful benefit”through IEPs.

Although a decision is not expected until this spring or summer, this case is likely to have significant impact on special education programs throughout the country.