In a decisive victory for students with disabilities, the United States Supreme Court has recently issued a unanimous decision which is certain to have a wide ranging impact on students receiving special education. The decision settles a long-standing split in the law over what amount of educational progress a student in special education is entitled to receive under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”).

See our Q&A on the decision below.

Register for our upcoming April 4th webinar on the decision.

This case focused on a child with autism who was receiving special education services from the public school. After what his parents considered to be years of stagnation, the parents removed the student from the public school and placed him in a private school more appropriate to his needs. At his new school, the student was able to make progress on various educational goals.

Many Federal Circuit Courts have held a student is only entitled to “some” educational benefit, which was generally interpreted to mean anything beyond a “de minimis” amount of education. In stark contrast, other Federal Circuit Courts (including the Circuit Court for New Jersey and Pennsylvania) have held that a student is entitled to a “meaningful” educational benefit, which is far more demanding than “some” educational benefit. The school district in this case was arguing for the first standard, and the parents were arguing for something closer to the second.

The Supreme Court’s decision in the case affirmatively rejects the approach that students are only entitled to “some” benefit. Instead, the Court ruled that “in order 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.” This standard embodies a requirement that the education a child receives must be substantially beneficial. Perhaps equally important, the Court reiterated the requirement of a student-centered approach to special education which requires that an IEP be developed with the student’s unique needs and abilities in mind. The Court stated that although goals for each student will be different, “…every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”

Now that IEP season is upon us, parents should be fully aware that school districts cannot justify “successfully” providing special education services where the child has made little or no actual progress. In such cases, legal action may be necessary to obtain different, additional or compensatory education services as well as other remedies.

The full text of the opinion in this case, Endrew F. v. Douglas City School District, is available here: https://www.supremecourt.gov/opinions/16pdf/15-827_0pm1.pdf.

Questions and Answers About This Decision

What was the case about?

Endrew F., also known as Drew, was a fourth grade student in Douglas County, Colorado. He has autism, which makes him eligible for a Free Appropriate Public Education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or “IDEA,” which is the main federal law governing the education of students with disabilities. Because of challenging behaviors Drew exhibited in the classroom, he made only very little progress on the goals and objectives of his IEP, many of which stayed the same year after year. Drew’s parents knew that he had the potential to make greater progress, so they privately enrolled him in a specialized private school for children with autism, where he began learning at a much greater rate. However, Drew’s school district refused to pay for the private school because it believed that it had offered Drew an appropriate educational program, even though he was making very little progress. The case was thus about how much educational benefit or progress is required for an IEP to be considered “appropriate.”

What was the law before the Endrew F. decision?

In 1982, the Supreme Court issued an important decision in a case called Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley. In that case, the Supreme Court decided that students with disabilities are only entitled to educational programs that are “appropriate,” rather than services that will maximize their educational potential. The Rowley Court explicitly declined to set a nationwide standard for courts to use to determine whether a particular IEP is appropriate. This led to a split among the twelve federal circuit courts in the United States. (Circuit courts are the highest federal courts in the country other than the Supreme Court.) In eight circuits, an IEP was considered appropriate if it simply allowed the student to make progress that was more than trivial or “de minimis,” even if only slightly more. In two other federal circuits, more was required of school districts – IEPs in those jurisdictions were required to provide educational benefits that were “significant” or “meaningful.” The remaining circuit courts were either internally conflicted or had not adopted a standard.

Did the Endrew F. Court resolve this conflict among the federal courts?

Absolutely. The Supreme Court adopted a nationwide standard that will apply in all judicial circuits, including the Third Circuit, which covers Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware.
What did the Supreme Court decide in the Endrew F. case?
In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court came down squarely on the side of students with disabilities. It rejected the “just-more-than-trivial” standard that was used in the majority of federal circuits.

According to the Supreme Court:

“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. For children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to “sitting idly . . . awaiting the time when they were old enough to ‘drop out.’” The IDEA demands more. It requires an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

The amount of progress that can be expected of an individual student will vary according to his or her unique abilities and needs, but as the Court stated, “the goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”

How does this help me?

The Endrew F. decision is expected to have a wide-ranging impact on how courts decide future cases in which parents and school districts disagree about whether a student’s IEP is appropriate. This, in turn, should have a direct effect on the IEP process for every student who is eligible under the IDEA. The Court’s decision makes clear that each student’s unique circumstances must be considered in determining whether his or her IEP is appropriate – a one-size-fits-all approach will not pass muster. In cases in which the student has severe cognitive or other disabilities, relatively little progress may be enough (although the educational programs for these students must still be directed towards helping the student achieve positive outcomes after graduation). For students with greater potential, however, more must be expected.

As a result of the Endrew F. decision, the opportunities for parents and others involved in the education of students with disabilities to successfully advocate for more intensive and specialized services for students with disabilities have been tremendously expanded.

How can I learn more about the Endrew F. decision and its impact on special education?

We will be providing free workshops through a variety of partner organizations throughout the state to help you understand the specific requirements of the Endrew F. decision and how to use it to maximum effect to enhance students’ educational programs. Also, keep an eye on our website and newsletters. We have a number of articles in the works which will provide even more information about the Supreme Court’s historic Endrew F. decision.

If you are involved with an organization that would like to host a no-cost Endrew F. workshop, please call (609) 896-4200 or email legal@hinkle1.com.

Published on Mar 27th, 2017. © Copyright 2017 Hinkle, Fingles & Prior, P.C., Attorneys at Law. All rights reserved.
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Hinkle, Fingles, & Prior, P.C., Attorneys at Law is a multi-state law practice with offices in Lawrenceville, Cherry Hill, Florham Park, and Paramus, New Jersey, and Plymouth Meeting and Bala Cynwyd, Pennsylvania. The firm's partners and associates lecture and write frequently on topics of elder law, estate planning, special needs trusts, guardianship, special education, health care insurance & Medicaid, and accessing adult services, and are available to speak to groups in New Jersey and Pennsylvania at no charge. For more information, visit http://www.hinkle1.com/ or call (609) 896-4200, or (215) 860-2100.