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We keep you up to date on the latest developments in special education and disabilities rights at the local, state, and federal level.

Supreme Court issues important ruling on meaning of FAPE

On March 22, 2017, the Supreme Court decided Endrew F. v. Douglas County Sch. Dist. RE-1, its first case in 35 years to discuss the free appropriate public education standard set forth in Board of Education of Hendrick Hudson School District v. Rowley. Endrew F. soundly rejected a school district’s argument that “merely more than de minimis” benefit was enough. To satisfy the FAPE requirement, a school district must offer an IEP reasonably calculated for the child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances. IDEA contemplates that the IEP process will be informed not only by the expertise of school officials, but also by the input of the child’s parents or guardians.

And the IEP must aim for progress. An appropriate IEP requires “careful consideration of the child’s present levels of achievement, disability and potential for growth.” To meet the unique needs of a child with a disability, school districts must faithfully follow the IEP process. School districts cannot treat IEP requirements as a mere procedural checklist. For a child being educated in the same curriculum as peers without disabilities, he or she must receive “instruction reasonably calculated to permit advancement through the general curriculum.” However, mere advancement from grade to grade will not always mean the child is receiving a FAPE.

For children who are educated in a modified curriculum, but unable to achieve at grade level, the IEPs must be “appropriately ambitious” and include “challenging objectives.” “Barely more than de minimis” progress, the standard formerly applied by some courts in reviewing school district programs, is not enough; in fact, a child receiving a program offering that level of progress “can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all.” IDEA requires an education “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress in light of the child’s circumstances.”

In analyzing whether an IEP meets this standard, courts should show some deference to school personnel. However, deference in this area is based on “the application of expertise and the exercise of judgment.” The nature of the IEP process ensures that parents, as well as school representatives “will fully air their respective opinions on the degree of progress a child’s IEP should pursue.” By the time any dispute reaches a court, school officials should have cogent and responsive explanations, based upon sound educational judgment, for their disagreement with the parents’ proposal for an appropriate amount of progress.

This case is a victory for students, not only in areas of the country that previously applied the “more than de minimis” standard. The decision reaffirms, in several places, that meaningful parental participation is key to the IEP process. It also indicates that all children, those who can access the same curriculum as their peers without disabilities as well as those who cannot, deserve challenging and ambitious goals.

RCG partners Judith Gran and Catherine Merino Reisman, along with Caroline Heller, Selene Almazan, Alice K. Nelson, Alexis Casillas, and Ellen Saideman, authored a “friend of the court” brief, available here, for the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates (COPAA), Children and Adults with Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD) and the California Association of Parent Child Advocacy (CAPCA).