Under federal special education law, an IEP must provide “educational benefit.” But how much of an educational benefit does an IEP have to provide?
That’s the legal question in the Supreme Court case Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. This case will be argued on January 11.
The right to FAPE means that students can get and related services through an IEP. But IDEA doesn’t spell out what “appropriate” means. It also doesn’t set a standard for the level of benefit the services must provide. Is some small benefit enough? Or do students have a right to something more meaningful?
With the Endrew F. case, the Supreme Court will consider these questions.
This is the first time since 1982 that a major case on the meaning of FAPE has reached the Supreme Court. That year, the Supreme Court decided a case known as Rowley.
With Rowley, the court ruled that a deaf child, who was an excellent lip reader, didn’t have a right to an interpreter. The court said that an IEP “must be reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits.” In other words, it has to provide what seems like a reasonable amount of support, but not the best or most that’s available.
FAPE provides a “basic floor of opportunity” that levels the playing field, the court wrote. However, a school doesn’t have to “maximize” a student’s potential. After that ruling, many federal courts used the analogy that kids have the right to a “serviceable Chevrolet,” not a “Cadillac,” when it comes to services.
The Endrew F. case zeroes in on where that decision left off. The case was brought on behalf of “Drew,” a boy with autism and . He attended the Douglas County School District in Colorado from kindergarten through fourth grade.
Drew had an IEP. But he made little progress on his academic goals. His parents say that’s because the school didn’t give him support for his severe behavior issues. His IEP goals were largely unchanged from fourth to fifth grade.
In fifth grade, Drew’s parents pulled him out of the public school district and placed him in a private school that focused on autism. He began getting appropriate behavior therapy and support in the new school. And he quickly started to learn.
Drew’s parents argue he was denied FAPE because he only got a minor benefit from his IEP. They claim he had a right to something more meaningful: an equal opportunity to succeed in school like any other child.
On the other side, the school district says Drew made some small progress on a few of his goals. It claims that under the law, he got enough of a benefit from his IEP.
Cases like this one depend a lot on individual circumstances, the district argues. That’s why it’s necessary to continue to have a flexible standard.
But there’s been a steady movement toward a more specific standard for FAPE over the years. And some say it should be a higher standard.
In 1997, Congress amended IDEA to require IEPs to have measurable goals. It also required schools to describe how they would measure progress toward those goals. When Congress passed No Child Left Behind in 2001, it required states to develop challenging academic standards. In 2004, Congress said these standards also apply to kids with IEPs.
Last year, the U.S. Department of Education weighed in, too. In a guidance letter to schools, it wrote that the right to FAPE means an IEP must be designed to help a student “make progress in the general education curriculum.”
Both sides agree the stakes in this case are huge for schools and families.
School districts worry that raising the standard of what an IEP must provide will raise costs. They point out that school budgets are already stretched and that states, not the federal government, bear most of the cost for special education services. They also claim a higher standard will result in more families filing lawsuits, thus costing schools money that could instead be spent on serving students.
But many parents and advocates believe schools must do more to help kids with disabilities succeed in school. A standard of “some benefit” for IEPs is too low, they say. Kids with learning and attention issues may be able to get better services if the Court rules in favor of Drew and his family.
Many outside groups have filed legal papers supporting Drew’s case. These include Understood founding partners the National Center for Learning Disabilities, the Learning Disabilities Association of America and the Parents Education Network. It also includes advocacy groups like Disability Rights Advocates.
More than 100 members of Congress are also on record supporting Drew. So are many former government education officials.
One important legal paper was filed by the National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE). It represents the school administrators who oversee IEPs in schools.
NASDSE doesn’t take a direct position in the case. However, it does say the higher standard of “meaningful benefit” from IEPs is something schools already can and do provide.
A decision in the Endrew F. case isn’t expected until spring or summer of 2017. No matter how the case turns out, it will have an impact on parents of kids with learning and attention issues. We’ll provide updates as more information becomes available.
Learn about the difference between federal law and state law for special education. Read important passages in special education law. And get tips on how to make sure your child’s IEP is implemented properly.
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About the author
Andrew M.I. Lee, JD is an editor and attorney who strives to help people understand complex legal, education, and parenting issues.