New Standard for Education Services under IDEA Still Open to Interpretation

by Julie Pelegrin

Since 1975, the federal “Individuals with Disabilities Education Act” (IDEA) has required states to provide a “free appropriate public education,” or FAPE, to each child with a disability. People are reasonably clear—though not completely—on what “free,” “public,” and “education” mean. But the courts have struggled with what “appropriate” means. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court, in deciding the case of Endrew F. v. Douglas Cty. School Dist. RE-1, handed down the latest interpretation: The educational services and supports a child receives must be “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

So, how did the Court arrive at this particular standard? And what difference is it likely to make for public schools and children with disabilities going forward?

The last time the U.S. Supreme Court considered what Congress meant when it required a FAPE for each child with a disability was in 1982. The case of Board of Ed. of Hendrick Hudson Central School Dist., Westchester Cty. v. Rowley centered on first grader Amy Rowley, who had a hearing impairment. Her individualized education plan (IEP) called for her to be fully integrated into the regular classroom and to spend time with a special tutor and a speech therapist. Amy’s teacher used a wireless device that transmitted to an FM hearing aid that Amy wore. Amy made excellent academic progress under these arrangements, better than many of the children who were not hearing impaired, but she didn’t fully understand everything going on in the classroom. Her parents sued the state claiming that her IEP should require the school to provide a sign language interpreter, giving Amy educational opportunities that were equal to those enjoyed by her non-hearing-impaired peers.

That was the first case in which the Court had to interpret the level of education that children with disabilities are entitled to under IDEA. The Court rejected Amy’s parents’ argument that she was entitled to services that would give her opportunities equal to those of children who did not have a disability. But it also rejected the state’s argument that a FAPE was merely aspirational and that IDEA did not create any substantive right to an education.

Instead, the Court held that IDEA guarantees a substantively adequate program of education to all children with disabilities. This guarantee is satisfied if a student’s IEP requires educational services and supports that “are reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits.” In the case of a child who is fully integrated into a regular classroom, like Amy, “educational benefits” means the child receives passing grades and is advancing from grade level to grade level. Since Amy was earning good grades and moving from grade to grade, the Court found that she was receiving a FAPE and her IEP was sufficient; she was not entitled to a sign language interpreter.

However, the Court refused to establish a single test for determining the adequacy of education benefits for all children with disabilities. The severity and types of disabilities cover such a broad spectrum that adequacy could vary widely from child to child. In applying the Rowley standard over the last 35 years, the courts have generally said that an educational benefit is adequate if it confers “some educational benefit” on the child.

This standard led Endrew F. and his parents to the U.S. Supreme Court. Endrew—referred to as Drew in the case—was diagnosed with autism when he was two years old. His parents enrolled him in Douglas County Schools (DCS), where he received an IEP. The educational services and supports that he received under the IEP enabled him to make some progress. He progressed from kindergarten to fourth grade but was still exhibiting disruptive behaviors that inhibited his ability to access learning in the classroom. Drew’s IEP had not changed significantly over the years, and in April 2010 when his parents received his proposed IEP for fifth grade, they decided to pull him out of DCS and enroll him in a private school for children with autism—Firefly Autism House.

At Firefly, Drew received a new behavioral intervention plan and higher academic goals, and Drew made good progress for six months. When DCS suggested a new IEP to Drew’s parents in November 2010, they decided it looked too much like the old IEP and sued the school district. They claimed DCS was not providing a FAPE for Drew and therefore, under IDEA, they were entitled to reimbursement for the cost of tuition at Firefly.

The administrative law judge, the federal district court judge, and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals judges all applied the Rowley standard and sided with DCS. While Drew may not have made a lot of progress academically or behaviorally at DCS, he had made some progress. The Tenth Circuit specifically found that the law required only that he make “merely more than de minimis” progress— which means more than a negligible amount of progress. Under this standard, DCS was meeting the requirements of IDEA with Drew’s IEP, and Drew and his parents were not entitled to more services.

The U.S. Supreme Court disagreed—unanimously. Specifically, they disagreed with the Tenth Circuit’s interpretation of the Rowley case. The Court reminded the Tenth Circuit that in Rowley they refused to set a standard for what constitutes educational benefits. A child’s IEP must focus on the individual child and his or her unique needs and be designed to enable the child to make educational progress. A child with disabilities is still not entitled to services that will guarantee to the child educational opportunities that are equal to those of his or her peers without disabilities. But the child’s educational program must be “appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances” and afford “every child…the chance to meet challenging objectives.”

So that’s the new standard: A child’s IEP must be reasonably designed to enable the child to make progress “appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” The Court recognized that this is a standard, not a formula, but it is “markedly more demanding” than the “merely more than de minimis” progress standard that the Tenth Circuit applied. As a standard it is still open to interpretation, and the courts are supposed to give deference to school district experts in deciding what level of progress is appropriate for a child.

It remains to be seen whether Drew’s parents will be reimbursed for the tuition they paid to Firefly for their son’s education. The Tenth Circuit will have to determine whether the services in the IEP provided by DCS would have enabled Drew to make progress that was appropriate to his circumstances. While Drew made significant progress with certain services at Firefly, the court could conclude that the services offered by DCS would have been sufficient for “appropriate” progress.

And it remains to be seen whether the new standard will result in real changes in the services that schools provide to children with disabilities. The Court’s decision does not answer the question of whether a school must provide the highest, most expensive services to enable a student to make the most progress or whether less expensive services that result in good progress are sufficient. There is a great deal of room to debate how much progress is appropriate in light of a child’s circumstances— almost as much room as existed when deciding whether a child received an educational benefit.