U.S. Supreme Court Unanimously Rules in Favor of Special Needs Student in Determining the Level of Educational Benefits Guaranteed by Federal Law

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires public schools to provide students with disabilities a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE). In order to meet this requirement, school administrators are tasked with creating an “individualized education plan” (IEP) for their students who qualify for services under IDEA. Generally, a student’s IEP should be tailored to accommodate to the unique needs of a student to ensure that he or she can receive an appropriate education. Since enacted in 1975, the federal courts have struggled with defining what level of educational benefit is guaranteed by the law.

In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court considered the issue in Board of Ed. Of Hendrick Hudson Central School Dist., Westchester Cty. v. Rowley. In Rowley, the parents of a first grade student with a hearing impairment argued that under IDEA their daughter was entitled to an “equal educational opportunity” enjoyed by students without a disability. The Supreme Court rejected the lower courts’ standard relative to “equal opportunity” concluding that a “free appropriate public education” was “too complex to be captured by the word ‘equal’” and required “impossible measurements and comparisons” for courts to make.  The Court, however, made it clear that the law required a “substantively adequate” program of education satisfied by an IEP outlining a program “reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits.”

The decision in Rowley provided little guidance to the lower courts that have continued to struggle with the defining the rights of students under IDEA over the last 35 years. Some federal circuits have determined that students are owed “some” benefit under IDEA, while others have ruled that IDEA requires school districts to provide a “meaningful” benefit to students with disabilities. The conflict amongst the circuit courts prompted the Supreme Court to revisit the educational requirements of IDEA last month in the case of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. In Endrew, the parents of a student with autism removed him from his public school when they determined that his progress had stalled. The parents enrolled their child in a private school specializing in educating students with autism. After he made vast improvements, the parents returned him to public school where he was given a new IEP. But the parents rejected the new IEP and ultimately filed suit against the school district claiming that it failed to provide their son with a FAPE because the proposed IEP was not “reasonably calculated to enable [their son] to receive educational benefits.”

The case progressed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals which found that the student must be provided “some educational benefit” that must be “more than de minimis” to be adequate. The Tenth Circuit determined that the student’s IEP was acceptable in this case because it was “reasonably calculated to enable [him] to make some progress.”

On appeal, the Supreme Court unanimously rejected the Tenth Circuit’s standard in an opinion authored by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. The Court held that the student’s “educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances.” In refuting the Tenth Circuit’s standard, Chief Justice Roberts explained that, “When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing ‘merely more than de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all.”

There is no one standard or clear test that can be applied in these cases as the education of students with disabilities requires a careful consideration of each student’s unique circumstances. The Supreme Court’s decision requires school districts to make these careful considerations in order to provide ambitious educational opportunities for students under IDEA.

Many special education advocates see the Court’s decision as a significant victory for special needs students that raises the bar across the country. But many commentators are hesitant to call the decision a “game changer” for special education, arguing that by and large school administrators are already meeting the Court’s standards. What is clear, however, is that the decision affords special needs students with additional ammunition to advocate for more ambitious and personally tailored IEPs.