U.S. Supreme Court to Decide on the Level of Education Benefit that Must Be Provided to Students with Disabilities

Earlier this month, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument on the case of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District in which it will decide the level of educational benefit that school districts must offer to students with disabilities.

This is the first case to reach the Supreme Court regarding the meaning of free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) since 1982.  The decades-old standard of Board of Education v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (1982), states that an IEP “must be reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits.”  The Court used the phrase “basic floor of opportunity” and stated that a school does not have to “maximize” a student’s potential.

In Endrew F., the student’s parents are asking the Court to raise the standard of what an IEP must provide.  They want a more rigorous standard, such as a requirement for “substantially equal educational opportunities.”  The school district argues that schools need a more flexible and individualized standard to manage the complex and variable issues in special education.  The school asserts that the current standard that students receive some benefit and have measurable goals provides sufficient clarity for courts to enforce the law.

In this case, the student’s parents placed him in a private facility specializing in students with autism and requested that the school district pay for the cost.  They claim he was making insufficient progress in the public school setting and required the outside placement.  The school claimed that his IEP was appropriate and that he could receive a FAPE in the district.  The parents filed an administrative complaint with the state, and the administrative law judge rejected their request for reimbursement.  The district court and the appellate court both agreed.  The Supreme Court Justices asked both sides a range of questions to try to find the appropriate language to define FAPE.  A recording of the oral argument can be accessed here.

While there has not been a major judicial ruling on the meaning of FAPE, the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs issued a Dear Colleague Letter in November 2015 in which it stated that FAPE means that a student’s IEP must be developed so a student “makes progress in the general education curriculum.”  The Letter shows that the Department believes there should be an increased emphasis on allowing special education students to keep up with their general education peers.  This would be a heightened standard compared to Rowley.

This case has drawn strong input from both sides.  More than 100 members of Congress have come out in support of the student and many amicus briefs have been filed in support of both positions.  School districts are concerned that creating a higher standard will increase costs and lead to more lawsuits.  Parents and special education advocates think the standard is currently ineffective and not geared toward student success.

A decision on the case is not expected until spring or summer of 2017, but no matter how the Justices rule, there will likely be changes to the special education landscape.



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