U.S. Supreme Court Requires Schools to Provide a Special Needs Student More Than a “De Minimis” Education

On March 22, 2017, the United States Supreme Court handed down a unanimous ruling in Endrew F., et al. v. Douglas County School District RE-1. In a decision that will have far-reaching implications in the area of special education, the Court held that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) “requires that students with disabilities be provided with an educational program that is reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

In 1982, the Supreme Court determined in Board of Ed. of Hendrick Hudson Central School Dist., Westchester Cty. v. Rowley that the IDEA requires that every child be provided with a free and appropriate public education (“FAPE”). The Rowley Court did not, however, adopt a standard for determining whether a child is receiving a sufficient educational benefit to satisfy this mandate. Rather, the Court stated that a child has received a FAPE if the Individual Education Plan (“IEP”) provides an education program “that is reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits,” and otherwise limited its analysis to the facts of the Rowley case.

Endrew F., an autistic child, was enrolled in a public school and educated pursuant to an IEP. In 4th grade, Endrew’s parents expressed displeasure with his progress and challenged the goals and objectives set out in his IEP, which were simply being carried over from one year to the next. Unable to obtain a satisfactory IEP, Endrew’s parents removed him from the public school, placed him in a private school specializing in autism, and sought tuition reimbursement on the grounds that the public school had failed to provide a FAPE.

The trial court and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the school district. The Tenth Circuit reasoned that Rowley merely required “some educational benefit” and held that an IEP is adequate if it “confers an educational benefit [that is] merely … more than de minimis.” Reversing the Tenth Circuit, the Court rejected the school district’s interpretation of Rowley.

In rendering its decision, the Court recognized that creation of an appropriate IEP requires input by school officials and the child’s parents. The IDEA requires that the child’s IEP “aim to enable the child to make some progress” and be specifically tailored to the child’s unique needs. Given the individualized nature of this inquiry, the Court could not prescribe a specific formula but made clear that a program that provides “merely more than de minimis” progress is tantamount to no education at all and does not satisfy the IDEA.

Parents should be aware that a school district must tailor the IEP to enable the child to make progress in light of the child’s circumstances, which may include services not available in the traditional “drop down menu” approach.

Debra A. Clifford and Mary Frances Palisano, Co-Chairs of the Gibbons Child Advocacy Team, authored this post.
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