In Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District RE-1, 580 U.S. ______ (2017), one of the most important special education cases in decades, the United States Supreme Court established the standard for determining “when handicapped children are receiving sufficient educational benefits” to satisfy the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

The lower courts were previously divided on the extent of educational benefits public schools were required to provide to their students with disabilities under the IDEA. While some lower courts had required that schools must provide “meaningful” educational benefits to disabled students, others required “merely more than de minimis” benefits – or, educational benefit that exceeds the bare minimum to any extent.

The Supreme Court in the Endrew F. case held that, in order to meet its obligations under the IDEA, public schools must provide an education reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress in light of the child’s circumstances. The Court described this standard as involving a fact-intensive exercise.

The case pitted the parents of a Colorado boy with autism against their school district. Endrew attended public school in the Douglas County School District from preschool through 4th grade. Each year, the school crafted an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, for Endrew. An IEP is the means by which special education and related services are “tailored to the unique needs” of a particular child with disabilities. It is through an IEP that a public school meets the legal requirement to provide a “free appropriate public education”—a FAPE, for short—to all eligible children.

The IEPs prepared for Endrew each year through 4th grade largely carried over the same basic goals and objectives from one year to the next. Endrew’s parents believed that he was failing to make meaningful progress, and they wanted the school district to overhaul its approach to Endrew’s problems to reverse the trend. However, the 5th grade IEP presented by school district was pretty much the same as his past ones. So, his parents removed Endrew from public school and enrolled him at a private school that specialized in educating children with autism where Endrew did much better.

Endrew’s parents filed a complaint with the Colorado Department of Education seeking reimbursement for Endrew’s tuition at the private school. An administrative law judge denied relief. Endrew’s parents then sought review in federal district court. The court, acknowledging that Endrew’s performance under past IEPs “did not reveal immense educational growth,” concluded that annual modifications to Endrew’s IEP objectives were “sufficient to show a pattern of, at the least, minimal progress.” The court reasoned that “minimal progress” was all that was required under the IDEA. Endrew’s parents appealed.

On appeal, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed. The Court noted that it had long interpreted the IDEA to mean that a child’s IEP is adequate as long as it confers an “educational benefit [that is] merely . . . more than de minimis.” Applying this standard, the 10th Circuit held that Endrew’s IEP had been “reasonably calculated to enable [him] to make some progress,” thus meeting the legal standard.

Endrew’s Parents again appealed, and the Supreme Court granted certiorari. In an unanimous decision, the Supreme Court developed a higher standard which public schools must meet in crafting an IEP for students with disabilities under the IDEA.

To meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, the Supreme Court held that a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances. The IEP must be the result of a “fact-intensive exercise,” informed by the expertise of school officials and the insights of the child’s parents or guardians.

The Supreme Court flatly rejected the “de minimis” standard adopted by the lower courts.  As Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the opinion: “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. The IDEA demands more.”

The Supreme Court drew a distinction between disabled students who were fully integrated in regular education classes and those, like Endrew, who were not. The Court said that, where a child is fully integrated in regular education classes, the IEP must be reasonably calculated to make progress so that the disabled student makes passing marks and advances from grade to grade. But where a child is not fully integrated in regular education classes, the IEP need not aim for grade level advancement. Instead, the IEP must be appropriately ambitious in light of the child’s circumstances. The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.

The Court described the standard established in this case as “markedly more demanding than the ‘merely more than de minimis’ test applied by the Tenth Circuit.”

Roughly 13% of all American students, about 6 1/2 million people, are disabled and entitled to services under the IDEA. Each year, nearly 400,000 students with disabilities leave school without a high school degree. The failure to complete high school is a key contributor leading to just 1-in-3 disabled Americans having a job, causing many people with disabilities to live lives of poverty. For these reasons, the Supreme Court’s decision in the Endrew F. case is very important.

The Supreme Court case is annexed here – Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District RE-1

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