While stopping short of establishing a bright-line rule, the U.S. Supreme Court came very close in evaluating whether a local educational agency has offered a student a free and appropriate education (FAPE).
The Court rejected the standard used by the Tenth Circuit and other circuit courts throughout the country in evaluating special education programming. In a unanimous decision in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, the Court held that the adequacy of a given individualized education program (IEP) depends specifically on the child. The decision strikes down the circuit courts’ previous standard of “merely more than de minimis” for educational benefit.
The case involves a student diagnosed with both autism and attention deficit disorder and eligible for special education and related services. The parents removed the student from the Douglass County School District and argued that the IEP proposed by the public school district was inadequate to confer FAPE. They later filed a claim under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act seeking reimbursement for payment for the tuition they paid for the student’s placement outside the public school. To be awarded such relief, the parents are required to demonstrate the school district failed to make a FAPE available to the student prior to the unilateral placement.
The administrative law judge denied the request for tuition reimbursement and said the school district provided a program reasonably calculated for the student to “receive educational benefits”. On appeal, both the federal district court in Colorado and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the administrative law judge’s decision, relying on language from the Court’s 1982 decision in Board of Ed. Of Hendrick Hudson Central School Dist. v. Rowley.
The Supreme Court granted review of the case specifically to consider the level of educational benefit school districts must confer on children with disabilities. The Court has now established that IDEA requires an educational program "reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child's circumstances." The decision does not elaborate on what specifically that “progress” must look like, but instead emphasizes that such determinations will depend on the "unique circumstances" of each child involved.
The Court again stopped short of establishing a firm standard, but reiterated that this should not be viewed as “an invitation to the courts to substitute their own notions of sound educational policy.” Importantly, the Court also rejected the more expansive FAPE standard offered by the parents and various interest groups. Instead, courts presented with FAPE disputes must consider the judgment and experience of the parties and whether there is a “cogent and responsive explanation for their decisions that shows that the IEP is reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of his circumstances.”