Author: Anisa Jassawalla, Attorney at Law
In the Massachusetts case C.D. v. Natick Public School District (2019) 74 IDELR 121 (“Natick”), the parents of a high school student with an intellectual disability and deficits in language ability filed a complaint with the Massachusetts Bureau of Special Education Appeals (MBSEA) seeking reimbursement for their daughter’s tuition at a private placement. Parents alleged, among other issues, that Student’s IEPs for the 2012-2013, 2013-2014, and 2014-2015 school years denied Student a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) by failing to develop sufficiently challenging objectives.
MBSEA found that Student’s IEPs provided her with FAPE and denied Parents’ request for reimbursement. Parents then appealed the MBSEA decision to the U.S. District Court and U.S. Court of Appeals, First District, arguing that the MBSEA and the lower court misapplied the Endrew F. decision when it reviewed the Student’s proposed IEPs.
According to the landmark Supreme Court case Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, a local educational agency must offer an IEP “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances,” in order to meet the LEAs obligation under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. (Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District (2017) 137 S.Ct. 988, 991). The Endrew F. court further stated that a student’s educational program must be “appropriately ambitious” and that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.” (Id. at 1000).
Parents asserted in Natick that a court cannot simply consider whether an IEP allows a student to “make progress that is appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” Rather, the court is additionally required to consider whether a student’s IEP objectives are “ambitious” and “challenging,” which would essentially create a two-part test to determine whether a school district provided a student with FAPE.
However, the U.S. Court of Appeals, First District disagreed with Parents. The Court of Appeals found that Endrew F. does not require a two-part test. Instead, the court stated, “The parents misread Endrew F., which did not construe the FAPE standard as two independent tests.” Instead, “Endrew F. used terms like ‘demanding,’ ‘challenging,’ and ‘ambitious’ to define ‘progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances,’ not to announce a separate dimension of the FAPE requirement.” While the Court of Appeals recognized that a court evaluating the appropriateness of an IEP may need to consider whether the IEP was sufficiently challenging, such an analysis would be part of the court’s comprehensive review of an IEP rather than a separate and distinct two-part test. The Court of Appeals upheld the lower court’s determination that the parents were not entitled to reimbursement for Student’s private placement because Student’s IEPs allowed Student to make appropriate progress.
The takeaway for local educational agencies is that Endrew F. does not require courts to evaluate the appropriateness of an IEP based on a two-prong test, or require courts to conduct a separate evaluation into whether an IEP’s objectives or goals are “appropriately ambitious” or “challenging.” Instead, the court will evaluate whether an IEP provides a student with FAPE based on a holistic review of the IEP. However, it is also important to note that Natick is a Massachusetts case. As a result, while California courts may apply this case as persuasive authority, they are not required to follow the court’s conclusions.