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Children Eligible for Special Education Impacted by the Supreme Court Decision

Children Eligible for Special Education Impacted by the Supreme Court Decision


Children eligible for special education impacted by the Supreme Court decision supporting “appropriately ambitious” Individualized Education Programs (IEPs)

Richard  L. O’Meara, Partner, Chair Education Law Group, Murray Plumb & Murray

For the first time in 35 years, the U.S. Supreme Court has revisited the question of what constitutes an “appropriate” education for the millions of children eligible for special education and related services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”).

In Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, a unanimous Supreme Court reversed a decision from the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals in Colorado. That court had concluded that special education programming is appropriate so long as it confers a benefit that is “merely more than de minimis,” a Latin term meaning a trifle. The Supreme Court explained that students offered the kind of programming described by the Tenth Circuit’s standard “can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all.”

Chief Justice Roberts wrote that the Supreme Court’s 1982 decision in Rowley v. Board of Education did not say that “any educational benefit was enough” to satisfy the IDEA. Instead, he explained that Rowley adopted a general approach that requires schools to “offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

Court reconfirms role of parents in determining child’s potential

The Endrew F. decision reemphasizes that parents have an important role in determining the level of progress their child is capable of attaining: “The Act contemplates that this fact-intensive exercise will be informed not only by the expertise of school officials, but also by the input of the child’s parents or guardians.” The decision also reaffirms that “the essential function of an IEP is to set out a plan for pursuing academic and functional advancement” and that a “focus on the particular child is at the core of the IDEA.” For this reason, the Court cautions that “[a]n IEP is not a form document” and must be “constructed only after careful consideration of the child’s present levels of achievement, disability, and potential for growth.”

The decision describes two different situations.

  • First, for an IDEA-eligible child “fully integrated in the regular classroom,” the Court concluded that “an IEP typically should . . . be ‘reasonably calculated to enable the child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade.” It was careful to note, however, that not all students advancing from grade-to-grade are necessarily being educated appropriately under the IDEA.
  • Second, for a child who is not fully integrated in the regular classroom, his “educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances, just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most children in the regular classroom.” As the Court explained, although the “goals may differ” for such students, “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”

IEP determinations will now need to be viewed against the new standards described in the Supreme Court’s Endrew F. decision. The civil rights team at Murray Plumb & Murray stands ready to assist parents and guardians of children with disabilities in this important effort and to advocate for the rights of these children to have “appropriately ambitious” IEPs.