On March 22, 2017, the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS) published its unanimous decision in Endrew F. et. al. v. Douglas County School District, RE-1, 580 U.S. ____ (2017) in which it analyzed and addressed the complex issue of precisely what constitutes educational benefits sufficient to satisfy the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities and Education Act (IDEA).
At the outset, SCOTUS referenced its earlier decision in Board of Ed. of Hendrick Hudson Central School Dist., Westchester Cty. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (1982), in which it also addressed the subject of educational benefits under the IDEA. In Rowley, SCOTUS held that the IDEA is intended to guarantee a substantively adequate program of education to all eligible children. It further noted that such a requirement is satisfied and a child is deemed to have received a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) if the student’s IEP sets forth a program that is “reasonably calculated to enable a child to receive educational benefits.” Rowley at 207. In that case, the student at issue was hearing impaired and received her instruction entirely within the regular education setting. Despite her impairment, the student was making excellent progress within the general education setting, often outperforming her typical peers.
Endrew F., in contrast, involved a student who received his education in both the general education setting and special education setting. Thus, in Endrew F., SCOTUS had to determine the appropriate standard for measuring FAPE for students who are not fully educated in the general education setting. The student, Endrew, who had autism, attended the defendant school system from preschool through fourth grade. By his fourth grade year, his parents had become dissatisfied with his progress in the classroom. They believed that his academic and functional progress had stalled. His parents further noted that the IEPs drafted by Endrew’s teachers simply carried over the same basic goals and objectives from one year to the next with little consideration of his present levels of performance. It appeared to his parents that he was failing to make meaningful educational progress. They opined that only a complete overhaul of his behavioral problems could help ensure he made meaningful progress going forward. Given that, when the school district presented a proposed IEP for fifth grade that was largely similar to his past IEPs, Endrew’s parents removed him from the school system and enrolled him in private school that specialized in educating children with autism.
Approximately six months after Endrew’s enrollment in the private school, his parents met with school district officials who presented them with another proposed IEP. Endrew’s parents also found this IEP to be inadequate. Thereafter, they filed a complaint with the Colorado Department of Education seeking reimbursement for their private school expenses. An administrative law judge denied relief to the parents, finding in favor of the school system. The parents then sought review in the US District Court in Colorado. The District Court affirmed the decision of the administrative law judge, concluding that the annual modifications to Endrew’s IEP objectives were sufficient to show a pattern of at least minimal progress. Endrew’s parents appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the District Court’s finding in favor of the school district. The Tenth Circuit specifically noted that a child’s IEP is considered adequate so long as it is calculated to confer an educational benefit that is “merely more than de minimis.” The Tenth Circuit found that Endrew’s IEP was reasonably calculated to enable him to make some progress, so they concluded he had not been denied FAPE. The parents then sought review by the United States Supreme Court (SCOTUS).
SCOTUS unanimously reversed the Tenth Circuit’s decision. In so doing, the Court first referred to its reasoning in the Rowley case. The Court noted that, in Rowley, it held that, in order to meet a 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. SCOTUS further noted that the essential function of an IEP is to set out a plan for pursuing academic and functional advancement. The Court explicitly stated more than once that the core of the IDEA is to ensure an IEP focuses on the individual child at issue: The instruction offered to a child must be calculated to meet the child’s unique needs through the individualized program.
SCOTUS further stated that, for a child who is not educated solely within the general education setting, such child’s IEP “must be appropriately ambitious in light of the circumstances.” The Court noted that such a standard is necessarily more demanding than the “merely more than de minimis” test that the Tenth Circuit applied. Indeed, the Court explicitly stated that a student offered an educational program providing “merely more than de minimis” progress can hardly be said to have been offered any education at all.
SCOTUS rejected the school system’s argument that an IEP merely be calculated to provide some educational progress, and likewise rejected the parents’ argument that FAPE should consist of an education aiming to provide a child with disability opportunities to achieve academic success that are substantially equal to the opportunities afforded to children without disabilities. The Court noted that the high standard asserted by the parents was similar to one proposed and rejected by the Court in Rowley. The Court then reiterated that the adequacy of an IEP will depend on the unique circumstances of the child for whom it was created. The Court further noted that reviewing courts should give deference to the school authorities whose actions and decisions they are reviewing.
In short, SCOTUS addressed what constitutes FAPE for a student who, unlike the student in Rowley, is not fully integrated in the general education setting. Given that, courts and school systems should look to Endrew F. when engaging in educational development and planning for students who are not solely educated in the general education setting.
While the decision in Endrew F. significantly changed the standard to be followed in the Tenth Circuit, which had been applying only the de minimis standard, the standards previously set forth and followed in the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals is already substantially similar to what the Supreme Court set forth in Endrew F. Specifically, the FAPE standard adopted by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals several years ago, and consistently applied by Sixth Circuit courts since then, is that an IEP must be calculated to provide a student with a meaningful educational benefit. Deal v. Hamilton County Bd. of Educ., 392 F.3d 840 (6th Cir. 2004). This standard established in Deal is substantially similar to the “appropriately ambitious” standard set forth in Endrew F. As such, school systems within the states in the jurisdiction of the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals can continue to look to the previously established “meaningful educational benefit” standard and be confident that they are working to provide an education to a student that is in keeping with the standard most recently articulated by the United States Supreme Court.
Notably, when analyzing the issue of what constitutes a student’s least restrictive environment in the case styled Roncker ex rel. Roncker v. Walter, 700 F.2d 1058 (6th Cir. 1983), the Sixth Circuit heavily referenced and relied upon the reasoning set forth in Rowley. To date, the Sixth Circuit has yet to consider how the “meaningful educational benefit” standard set forth in Deal applies to cases where a student’s least restrictive environment is at issue. Because the Supreme Court Opinion in Endrew F. has now limited the application of Rowley, it is likely that the Sixth Circuit may soon have to reassess the standard it established in Roncker and whether and how it is impacted by Endrew F.