Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District

On March 22 the U.S. Supreme Court published an opinion in a significant special education case. Issuing out of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Colorado, Endrew v. Douglas poses the question of what level of educational benefit public schools must provide to students with disabilities in order to satisfy the requirement of a free appropriate public education (FAPE) according to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

The Supreme Court last heard arguments on this topic in the 1982 case Board of Education v. Rowley, in which the Court determined that an individualized education program (IEP) must be “reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits.” Since that time, federal courts across the country have issued differing opinions on the level of educational benefits that students must receive, with the majority of circuits requiring “merely more than de minimis” or “some benefit” (including the Tenth Circuit, where this case originated from). Only three circuits (one of which is the Sixth Circuit, which includes Ohio) have held to a higher standard – “meaningful benefit.”

The Supreme Court’s March 22 opinion expands upon the FAPE standard set forth in Rowley:

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 U.S. Department of Education had suggested in a court brief that school districts offer a program “aimed at significant educational progress in light of the child’s circumstances.” While the Supreme Court adopted “appropriate” instead of “significant” as the standard, its unanimous decision confirms that a standard requiring nothing more than a minimal educational benefit is too low.

The Court’s holding does not overrule the Rowley decision. Instead, in clearly rejecting other, higher standards, and declining the low standard adopted by the lower court, the High Court underscored Rowley’s emphasis on individualized benefits based on each child’s potential progress. Although the family sought imposition of a standard that was “substantially equal to the opportunities afforded children without disabilities,” such as attaining self-sufficiency and contributing to society in equal ways, the Court rejected that idea as “entirely unworkable” and noted that it would be “plainly at odds” with Rowley. The 1982 Rowley case also considered but rejected similar language regarding reaching the maximum potential of each student. Higher standards such as this would significantly increase costs to districts for the more than six million students with disabilities.

Although “progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances” is worded differently from the Sixth Circuit’s standard of a “meaningful benefit,” in practice it should be similar. As our circuit has held the highest standard throughout the country, districts that have held to this standard in their IEPs will likely not see a significant change in their IEPs and services. The Supreme Court’s decision may have a greater effect on special education programs in circuits whose standard has previously been lower, such as the Tenth Circuit’s standard of merely more than the minimum.

Even with the Supreme Court’s decision, this is not the end of the saga for Endrew F. Now the case goes back to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals to issue a ruling consistent with the Supreme Court’s decision to reject the previous, lower standard that the circuit had used.