The U.S. Supreme Court Issues Decision Clarifying the Standard of a Free Appropriate Public Education for Students with Disabilities

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in the case of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District late last month, providing guidance on the level of educational benefit schools must provide to students with disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (“IDEA”) (for background information on this case, please see our earlier blog post).  While the Court does not believe it changed the meaning of free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) first outlined in the 1982 case of Board of Education v. Rowley, it did take steps to clarify the standard.

Rowley states that an IEP  “must be reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits.”  The Court in Endrew F.  stated that “to meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”  While both standards sound similar – and utilize the qualification “reasonably calculated” – disability advocacy groups have applauded the ruling as raising the educational standards and expectations for students with disabilities.  This is because the lower court in this case, and in cases around the country, interpreted Rowley to mean that a school must provide an IEP that is calculated to confer an educational benefit that is “merely more than de minimis.”  This standard was rejected by the Supreme Court.

Yet the Supreme Court declined to utilize the heightened standard proposed by Endrew’s parents.  They requested that educational programs should provide “substantially equal educational opportunities” for student with disabilities.  Justice Roberts said the phrase “free appropriate public education” is too complex to be captured by the word “equal” – whether equal means opportunities or services.  He also reaffirmed the role of schools, and stated that creating appropriate educational programs “requires a prospective judgment by school officials.”  Additionally, the Court explained that this standard requires an independent analysis of each student’s grade level progression, stating that if it is not reasonable to expect that the student would progress to the next grade every year, the student’s IEP goals and objectives should still be “appropriately ambitious in light of [the child’s] circumstances.” 

After the ruling, the National School Boards Association called the ruling “measured” and characterized it as not a major change in policy.  The Association did note that the decision will likely cause school districts to more diligently track student progress to show that students are making appropriate progress.



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