Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq., public schools must provide children with disabilities a “free appropriate public education.” When a school district cannot provide a student with an appropriate education, the IDEA mandates the school district must reimburse the family for the costs of sending their child to a private institution that can provide an appropriate education. However, parents, educators, and courts across the country have disagreed on exactly what constitutes an “appropriate” education for special needs students.

The key mechanism by which schools attempt to meet the IDEA requirement to provide an appropriate education is the individualized education program, or IEP. Each IEP must be reasonably calculated to confer an educational benefit on the child. Some federal courts have said that an appropriate education is provided by an IEP which provides a child with a just above-trivial educational benefit, while other courts have required that IEPs provide a substantial or “meaningful educational benefit.” This divide over the level of educational benefit the IDEA demands has resulted in widely different educational experiences for special needs students across the country.

U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case in which the Court will define what an “appropriate” education is for children with disabilities.  In Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, petitioner, Endrew F. (Drew), was diagnosed at age 2 with autism which impaired Drew’s “cognitive functioning, language and reading skills, and his social and adaptive abilities.”

Drew attended public school from preschool through 4th grade and received an IEP from the school district each year. In 2nd and 3rd grade, Drew began experiencing behavioral problems in school, such as yelling, crying, and dropping to the floor. These problems became more frequent and severe in 4th grade. Following Drew’s behavioral deterioration and lack of academic progress, his parents rejected the IEP proposed for his 5th grade year because it was mostly unchanged from the ineffective 4th grade IEP. Given the school’s failure to address Drew’s needs, his parents notified the school district that they were withdrawing Drew from the public school and would be seeking tuition reimbursement. They then placed Drew in a private school that specializes in educating children with autism. Drew’s placement at his new school was appropriate under the IDEA, and he made “academic, social and behavioral progress” there.

Drew’s parent’s application for tuition reimbursement from the school district was denied, and they appealed.  Ultimately, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the denial of the parent’s claim, holding that an IEP must be reasonably calculated to guarantee “some” educational benefit, which it interpreted to be any educational benefit that is “more than de minimis,” and held that the IEP prepared by the school district provided the educational benefit required by the law.

In their Petition for a Writ of Certiorari to the U.S. Supreme Court, Drew’s parents argued that an IEP must be designed to confer a substantial educational benefit to a child with disabilities, a higher standard than that applied by the federal appeals court.  The school district disagreed, arguing that it need only provide a minimal educational benefit. In its forthcoming decision, the Supreme Court is expected to define the level of educational benefit that public schools must provide under the IDEA.

To read the petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to hear Drew’s case, click here.

For additional information concerning special needs trusts and disability planning, visit: https://vanarellilaw.com/special-needs-disability-planning/