Today, the long-awaited United States Supreme Court decision on the standard for a "Free and Appropriate Public Education" (FAPE) was handed down. In Endrew F., et al. v. Douglas County School District, decided March 22, 2017, the United States Supreme Court holds that the IDEA's requirement that an IEP be "reasonably calculated to receive educational benefits" is not a "de minimus" standard. However, the Court, as it has done before, declined to offer a bright line test for educating students with disabilities. It did however provide some additional reminders and insights into the standard by which school districts will be judged.
Factual Background of Case:
Endrew F. was an elementary-aged student with autism and significant behaviors that impeded his learning. His parents complained that he was not making meaningful progress, and that the IEPs being offered carried over the same basic goals and objectives from one year to the next. The family asked for an overhaul of the program, but the school district presented a similar IEP to those presented in the past. The family withdrew Endrew F. and enrolled him in a private school. At the private school, his behaviors improved significantly, allowing him to make a degree of academic progress that had eluded him in public school. His parents sought reimbursement at public expense.
Legal Analysis of FAPE Standard:
The Supreme Court's decision today reveals several important points regarding FAPE:
There is no "bright-line" standard for FAPE.
FAPE includes "special education," which is "specially designed instruction…to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability" and "related services," which are support services "required to assist a child…to benefit from" that instruction. These services must be implemented in conformity with the student's IEP.
The IEP must be drafted in compliance with the IDEA's detailed set of procedures which emphasize collaboration amongst parents and educators and require careful consideration of the student's individual circumstances and unique needs.
School districts are not required to provide disabled students an opportunity to achieve their full potential commensurate with the opportunity provided to other children.
When a student is receiving instruction in the regular classroom, an IEP that is "reasonably calculated to enable the student to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade" will generally satisfy the FAPE requirements.
For students not able to be educated in the regular classroom, the district is not required to provide for grade-level advancement. However, the IEP must still aim to enable the child to make "progress" on "challenging objectives." The amount of progress is more than "de minimus" and depends on the child's circumstances.
The question is whether the IEP is "reasonable," not whether it is "ideal."
The IDEA does not require "any particular educational outcome."
Outcome of the Case:
The Supreme Court did not rule in either the district's or the family's favor, finding that both the district and the family held extreme positions and that FAPE rested somewhere in the middle. The case was vacated and remanded to the Tenth Circuit for further proceedings to determine whether FAPE in this particular case was achieved.
Take-Aways for School Districts:
Expect an increased demand for greater services from parents/advocates. While districts are not required to “maximize potential,” they will need to develop an ambitious program and be measured on progress in light of the student’s potential.
Districts must provide parents with a full opportunity to participate and give input into their children’s IEPs.
The Supreme Court made clear this was not an invitation for courts to substitute judgment for educators. However, district staff must thoroughly address the student’s needs in the proposed IEP and apply professional expertise and judgment to their decision-making. Staff must be prepared to give rationale, thorough explanations for the decisions made in IEP meetings.
Be prepared for discussions on how a student performs in a private setting to become more relevant in litigation. Therefore, ensure that IEP discussions clearly identify why proposed services by parents were considered, and, if applicable, rejected.
The School and University Law Group of Nelson Mullins has significant experience counseling and defending school districts on issues impacting the IDEA, Section 504 and laws impacting disabled individuals. For questions, please contact Sherry Culves at email@example.com or Nina Gupta at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For informational purposes only. Past success does not indicate the likelihood of success in any future legal representation.