In Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, 580 U.S. __ (2017), the U.S. Supreme Court recently delivered a unanimous decision on a special education case regarding the legal standard for determining what level of educational benefit is required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA"). Although the Court was not explicitly clear on what would constitute a universal standard for a free appropriate public education ("FAPE"), it clarified that a school district must offer an individualized education program ("IEP") that is reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress that is appropriate in light of the child’s own circumstances.

Background of Case

Endrew F. was diagnosed with autism at age two and attended kindergarten through the fourth grade in the Douglas County School District in Colorado. By the fourth grade, Endrew’s parents were dissatisfied with his educational program and perceived that his academic, behavioral and functional progress had stalled. From year to year, his IEPs contained largely the same basic goals and objectives as in his past IEPs and the Court found these IEP components indicative of the Student’s failure to make "meaningful" progress. In the fifth grade, the student’s IEP remained relatively the same. The parents responded by withdrawing from his public school and enrolling Endrew in a private school specializing in autism, where he was found to have made substantial progress. The district later offered a new IEP but the parents rejected it, finding the FAPE offer, including a behavior plan, was not meaningfully different than before.

A little over a year after the last IEP offer, Endrew’s parents filed a complaint seeking reimbursement for the private placement. The parents did not prevail in the administrative proceeding or in their appeal before the District Court or the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. The two federal courts opined that the District’s IEPs met the legal standard for educational benefit. The parents appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted certiorari and reversed.

The US Supreme Court’s Decision

In Board of Ed. of Hendrick Hudson Central School Dist., Westchester Cty. v. Rowley, 458 US 176 (1982), the Court declined to establish, in a bright-line rule, what constituted "sufficient educational benefits to satisfy the requirements of the [IDEA]" for all eligible children. In hearing the Endrew F. case, the Court engaged in a much awaited discussion revisiting the Rowley case’s seminal analysis of the adequacy of an IEP as espoused in, or intended, under the IDEA.

The Douglas County School District advanced the position, as many districts would have espoused, that the Court should reaffirm the Rowley standard of a FAPE requiring that the level of instruction provided to an IDEA eligible child must confer "some" educational benefit. The Court opined that Rowley need not have gone any further in establishing a FAPE standard at the time because that case involved a child, instructed in the general education setting, whose IEP was in fact "designed to deliver more than adequate educational benefits." Because the case at hand in Endrew F. involved a child whose educational needs differed substantially from Amy Rowley, the current Court readily dismissed the Douglas County School District’s arguments that the Rowley standard of achieving passing marks and advancing from grade to grade applies equally to all IDEA eligible children, regardless of their level of need. The current Court clarified that the substantive standard implicit in the IDEA requires that an IEP "be appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances" in order to sufficiently confer educational benefit, i.e., the instruction offered must be "specially designed" to meet the child’s "unique needs." The Court took this opportunity to reiterate a fine point espoused in Rowley, emphasizing that the evidence of how a FAPE is demonstrated for one child may not resemble that for another child: "the benefits obtainable by children at one end of the spectrum will differ dramatically from those obtainable by children at the other end, with infinite variations in between."

The Court here reaffirmed the Rowley standard that for most students, a FAPE will involve integration in the regular classroom and individualized special education calculated to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade. Finding that not all children would, as Amy Rowley did, "progress[ ] smoothly through the regular curriculum being fully integrated into a regular education classroom, the Court cautioned that it may not be reasonable to expect all disabled children to aim for grade level advancement. Rather, for those children, their educational program "must be appropriately ambitious in light of [their] circumstances, just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most children in the regular classroom." The Endrew F. Court articulated that this "general standard" was not a formula but it effectively rejected the lower Court of Appeals’ "de minimis" educational benefit test.

Notably, the Court added that "[a]ny review of an IEP must appreciate that the question is whether the IEP is reasonable, not whether the court regards it as ideal." In doing so, the Court squarely rejected Endrew’s parents’ argument that the substantive standard of FAPE was a bright-line rule requiring that disabled children progress academically, attain self-sufficiency, and obtain opportunities to succeed in life as equally as their non-disabled peers.

Practical Effect on School Districts in California

In this new look at the FAPE standard established in the Rowley case, the Supreme Court made clear that for any child eligible for special education, the substantive appropriateness of the IEP depends on whether he or she makes educational progress relative to his or her unique educational needs. California school districts remain unaffected by the Endrew F. decision to the extent that "de minimis" educational benefit has not been the operative FAPE standard in the Ninth Circuit. However, California school districts may face claims citing Endrew F. that advance a new, higher standard for a FAPE. As parents, school districts and judges begin to process the application of the Endrew F. decision, nuisances on this "general standard" for FAPE will likely emerge.