The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals recently reiterated that the correct standard for determining whether a student has received a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) is whether the student has received “some” rather than “meaningful” educational benefit.  In O.S. v. Fairfax County Sch. Bd., the parents of a special education student with multiple medical conditions filed a due process complaint alleging that he was denied a FAPE and pointing to a lack of progress and insufficient IEP supports.  At the administrative level, the hearing officer determined that the student was provided a FAPE. The parents appealed the decision, and the district court affirmed. In the Circuit Court, the parents argued that the 2004 amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) created a higher standard for FAPE, which the hearing officer and district court failed to apply. The Fourth Circuit rejected this argument.

To make their case, the parents referred to the student’s results on a recent reevaluation to argue that he had not made meaningful progress and had in fact regressed. They requested that the student’s new IEP include a one-to-one aide, extended school year services, and a full-time nurse in the building to provide the student the supports he needed to make meaningful progress. The school district countered that these additional supports were unnecessary given the services and supports currently available in his program. The school district further argued that the student had made good progress, pointing to his IEP progress reports and the statements of his teachers and related services providers. The school district explained that the inconsistent test scores were likely attributable to the student’s excessive absences.

With respect to the correct standard to apply, the parents asserted that the current version of the IDEA requires that a student receive “meaningful” rather than “some” educational benefit, which was the standard articulated by the Supreme Court in Board of Education v. Rowley in 1982.  In support of their argument, parents pointed to the preamble of the current version of the IDEA, which focuses on results rather than mere access to education. The Fourth Circuit noted, however, that when Congress intends to change a standard decided by the Supreme Court, it does so explicitly, but had not done so here. Instead, Congress made other changes related to new higher expectations for students with disabilities, such as requiring that an IEP document “academic achievement and functional performance,” rather than educational performance; requiring that students with disabilities be included in state-wide assessments; providing progress reports with the same frequency as report cards; and basing special education on peer-reviewed research to the extent practicable.  

The Fourth Circuit also explained that the Rowley court used both the terms “some” and “meaningful,” as distinguished from “minimal” or “trivial” progress, to describe the benefit required to demonstrate that a student had received FAPE. The Court thus agreed with several other circuit courts that have found that the Rowley standard remains applicable and rejected a heightened benefit standard. Applying the “some benefit” standard, the Court agreed with the hearing officer and district court that the school district provided the student FAPE.