The Supreme Court ruled today that Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) must give kids with disabilities more than a de minimis, or minimal, educational benefit. The ruling could have a big effect on school services for kids with learning and thinking differences.
The case—Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District—involved “Drew,” a boy with autism who made almost no progress on his IEP goals. His parents said he was entitled to more under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the nation’s special education law. They asked the Court to rule that the boy should have had an “equal opportunity” to achieve success like other kids. The school district, however, argued that the boy only had the right to a de minimis, or minimal, benefit from the IEP. And that’s what he received, the school district said.
In a 16-page decision, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, writing for a unanimous court, rejected the school district’s de minimis standard. He wrote that IDEA aims for “grade level advancement for children with disabilities who can be educated in the regular classroom.” Therefore, a de minimis standard makes no sense:
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.’”
But Roberts also didn’t accept the “equal opportunity” standard that Drew’s parents wanted. Instead, he crafted a more flexible standard:
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.
This would apply, Roberts wrote, even to kids like Drew who aren’t integrated into general education classrooms:
If that is not a reasonable prospect for a child, his IEP need not aim for grade-level advancement. But his educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances, just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most children in the regular classroom. The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.
He acknowledged that this was a “general standard, not a formula.” A lot will depend, he wrote, on each child’s unique needs:
We will not attempt to elaborate on what “appropriate” progress will look like from case to case. It is in the nature of the [special education law] and the standard we adopt to resist such an effort: The adequacy of a given IEP turns on the unique circumstances of the child for whom it was created.
Importantly, Roberts noted, IDEA requires IEPs to be developed with expertise from schools and input from parents. And schools must give “cogent and responsive explanation[s]” for their decisions on services.
Disability advocates applauded the Endrew F. decision. “This is a good day for children with disabilities,” said Mimi Corcoran, President and CEO of Understood founding partner the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD). “The Court affirmed that the vision and intent of IDEA is that children with disabilities will make meaningful progress in our education system and achieve ‘appropriately ambitious’ objectives. It soundly rejected the belief that just some small benefit is enough. NCLD applauds this decision and will work with parents and educators to make it a reality.”
Legal experts caution that it will take time to understand the full implications of the decision for kids with learning and thinking differences. But for Drew’s parents, the decision is a welcome sign that their son deserved more.
Read more about the right to a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). Learn about your options when you disagree with a school about your child’s IEP. And find out how to tell if the goals in your child’s IEP are SMART.