Summary: In a landmark 1982 case on special education and the IDEA, the Supreme Court held that an IEP must be reasonably calculated to enable a child to receive “educational benefits.” Bd. of Educ. of Hendrick Hudson Cent. Sch. Dist. v. Rowley (1982) 458 U.S. 176, 206-207 (“Rowley”). The Supreme Court added that a child must receive “some educational benefit” sufficient to provide “access” to education that is “meaningful.” Rowley at 192, 200. In the 34 years since Rowley was decided, federal courts have reached different conclusions regarding what level of educational benefit has to be provided by an IEP to satisfy the IDEA. The Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal out of Colorado in the case of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District RE-1 (No. 15-827) to consider this question and, hopefully, provide a clear answer.
Federal courts in the United States are divided into twelve geographic “Circuits,” each with its own Court of Appeals. A number of these Courts of Appeals disagree on what level of educational benefit a child must receive from an IEP to satisfy the IDEA’s guarantee of a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”).
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over California, requires a local educational agency (“LEA”) to provide a child with a “meaningful benefit.” N.B. v. Hellgate Elementary Sch. Dist., ex rel. Bd. of Dirs., Missoula Cnty., Mont., (9th Cir. 2008) 541 F.3d 1202, 1212-13; see M.M. v. Lafayette Sch. Dist. (9th Cir. 2014) 767 F.3d 842, 852.
In practice it can be difficult and fact-intensive to determine what constitutes a “meaningful benefit,” and different panels of Ninth Circuit Justices have disagreed with each other about what this means. Compare N.B. v. Hellgate at 1212-13 with J.L. v. Mercer Island Sch. Dist. (9th Cir. 2010) 592 F.3d 938, 951 n.10 (“Some confusion exists within this circuit . . . .”). However, the Ninth Circuit’s standard is clearly higher than the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals requirement of “some educational benefit” that “must merely be more than de minimis” (a minimal or “trifling” amount). Thompson R2-J Sch. Dist. v. Luke P. ex rel. Jeff P. (10th Cir. 2008) 540 F.3d 1143, 1149. The Tenth Circuit’s standard is similar to the prevailing standard in five other circuits covering broad swaths of the United States.
The Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal from the Tenth Circuit to consider which, if any, of the varying standards the different circuit courts have created over the last three decades is the correct measure of “educational benefit” necessary to provide a FAPE.
Practice Tips: The Ninth Circuit is in the minority with its more demanding standard requiring a “meaningful benefit” from an IEP to satisfy the duty to provide a FAPE. However, for the time being this is still the law in California and in the future could be the legal standard applied throughout the United States.
 A thirteenth appellate court hears appeals in special cases, like those involving patent laws.