On January 11, 2017, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in the case of Endrew F. ex rel. Joseph F. v. Douglas County School District RE 1, Docket No. 15-187, to address the level of benefit a school must confer on students to provide them with a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) under the IDEA. The Court’s ultimate ruling on the case could have provide some clarity as to what constitutes a FAPE, especially for students with severe disabilities.
In 1982, the Supreme Court stated that the IDEA required districts to provide students with special needs with “some educational benefit.” Bd. of Educ. of Hendrick Hudson Cent. Sch. Dist., Westchester Cty. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 200 (1982). It stated that for students who participated in the regular education curriculum, this meant schools had to provide the student with a program that was “reasonably calculated to enable the child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade.” Id. at 204. It did not articulate a similar test for determining when students who were not participating in the general education curriculum were receiving “some educational benefit.”
In Endrew F., the student petitioner argued that the Supreme Court should clarify that, for such students, “some benefit” meant more than a “barely de minimis educational benefit.” He urged the Court to interpret the IDEA to require schools to provide programs for students not participating in the general education curriculum that were “reasonably calculated to provide substantially equal educational opportunities” and included “standards, that were the highest possible achievable by the student.” Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg pointed out, however, that this was the standard the majority of the Court rejected in Rowley. The petitioner responded that Congress had amended the IDEA twice since the Rowley decision, indicating an intent to require districts to provide students with “[e]qual educational opportunity.”
The Solicitor General, on behalf of the United States government, argued that Court should rule that the IDEA required districts to provide students with an education that was “aimed at significant educational progress in light of the child’s circumstances” or that was “reasonably calculated to make progress that [was] appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”
The school district, in contrast, contended that the Court did not need to clarify what “some benefit” meant. Lower courts had been interpreting what “some benefit” meant for “34 years,” it stated, and the Court did not need to introduce a new language now.
Trying to make sense of the parties’ various proposed formulations of a FAPE standard, Justice Samuel Alito observed: “What is frustrating about this case and about this statute is that we have a blizzard of words.” Justice Stephen Breyer cautioned that the adoption of a new FAPE standard could result in an increase in costly litigation over any such new standard.
Most memorably, Chief Justice John Roberts stated that in his view, the case came down to the school district arguing that the IDEA required districts to provide students with “some benefit,” while the student and the U.S. government argued that the IDEA required districts to provide “some benefit.”
The Court is likely to issue a ruling on the case by the end of June. School law practitioners are closing watching this case, as the outcome will influence the day-to-day decisions of school districts about how to ensure legally compliant individualized education programs for students with IDEA-qualifying disabilities.