Supreme Court Holds IEPs Must Be “Reasonably Calculated to Enable a Child to Make Progress Appropriate in Light of the Child’s Circumstances"

Highlights:

  • Where a student is educated outside of the general classroom setting, his or her IEP must be “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”
  • This progress must be “appropriately ambitious in light of his [or her] circumstances,” as “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”
  • The goals should be written by someone knowledgeable about the student’s individual needs, present capabilities, and potential for growth, and include significant input from the student’s parent(s) and/or guardian(s).
  • There is still no “bright-line rule,” but reviewing courts should give deference where a school can “offer a cogent and responsive explanation for their decisions” showing the IEP is appropriate for the individual child.

Summary

Today, in an unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its long-anticipated ruling in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, reversing the Tenth Circuit’s use of a “de minimis benefit” test when determining whether an IEP sets out appropriately challenging educational goals.  The Supreme Court instead held that an IEP must be “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”  Endrew F. v. Douglas Cty. Sch. Dist., 580 U.S. ___ (2017) at *14-15 (emphasis added).

Background

Endrew F. is a Coloradoan elementary school student diagnosed with autism.  Endrew attended Douglas County schools from preschool through fourth grade.  However, by fourth grade, Endrew’s “academic and functional progress had essentially stalled” as he faced behavioral problems in the classroom.  Endrew F., at *7.  As evidence of this stall, Endrew’s IEPs “largely carried over the same basic goals and objectives from one year to the next.”  Endrew F., at *7.  When the school district presented a proposed 5th grade IEP what was “pretty much the same as his past” IEPs, Endrew’s parents removed him from his school and enrolled him in a private school specializing in educating children with Autism.  Endrew F., at *7.

At the new school, Endrew was given increased academic goals and a new behavioral intervention plan.  Almost immediately, Endrew’s behavior improved and he began making academic progress well beyond that made at his prior school.

Six months later, Endrew’s parents met again with the Douglas County School District, and the district presented a new IEP that parents believed was “no more adequate” than the prior IEP, and no new behavioral plan that incorporated the changes and progress made at the private school.  Endrew F., at *7.  Parents continued sending Endrew to the private school, and filed a complaint alleging a denial of FAPE and seeking reimbursement of tuition.

ALJ, District Court, and Tenth Circuit Apply the “de minimus Benefit” Test and Deny Parent’s Complaint

In the administrative hearing, Endrew’s parents “contended that the final IEP proposed by the school district was not ‘reasonably calculated to enable him to receive educational benefits’” and therefore the school district denied Endrew FAPE.  Endrew F., at *8.  However, the ALJ disagreed and denied relief.  Parents sought review in Federal District Court, which upheld the ALJ’s ruling based on the de minimis benefit test.  The District Court found that while Endrew’s performance under the school district’s IEPs did not show “immense educational growth,” the “annual modifications to Endrew’s IEP objectives were ‘sufficient to show a pattern of, at the least, minimal progress.’”  Endrew F., at *8.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed, stating the school district did not deny Endrew FAPE because under the de minimis test, an IEP “is adequate as long as it is calculated to confer an educational benefit that is merely more than de minimis.” Endrew F., at *8-9.  Because the Tenth Circuit found Endrew’s IEP had been “reasonably calculated to enable him to make some progress,” it held that the school district had met its burden to provide an appropriate education.  Endrew F., at *8-9.

The Supreme Court Reverses, Holding “a School Must Offer an IEP Reasonably Calculated to Enable a Child to Make Progress Appropriate in Light of the Child’s Circumstances”

The Supreme Court unanimously reversed, stating that the FAPE “reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits” “standard is more demanding than the ‘merely more than de minimis’ test applied by the Tenth Circuit.”  Endrew F., at *14.  The Court found that “a student offered an educational program providing ‘merely more than de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all. For children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to ‘sitting idly . . . awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out.’”  Endrew F., at *14 (citing Board of Ed. V. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 179 (1982)).

Instead the Court found the proper standard is that “a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances” “to meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA.”  Endrew F., at *11.

In reaching this position, the Court reflected on its prior decision in Rowley, in which it held that for a student in a general education setting, adequacy of an IEP could generally be measured by determined whether the IEP was reasonably calculated to enable the student “achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade.”  Endrew F., at *5-6.  However, the Rowley decision limited itself to the facts of the case and declined to provide a test for interpreting whether an IEP was “reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits” where the student was not in a general education setting.

Where a student is not in a general education setting, an IEP “need not aim for grade-level advancement” if that “is not a reasonable prospect for the child.”  Endrew F., at *14.  Instead, an “educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of [the child’s] circumstances, just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most children in the regular classroom. The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”  Endrew F., at *14.

Here, the Court again declined to state a bright-line rule for determining the adequacy of an IEP’s educational goals.  Instead, the Court noted because an IEP “is not a form document” and the offered instruction must be specially designed to meet the unique needs of a child on an individualized basis, “the IEP must be appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”  Endrew F., at *11-12.  This analysis must be performed on a “case-by-case” basis because “the adequacy of an IEP turns on the unique circumstances of the child for whom it was created.”  Endrew F., at *15-16.  The Court explicitly stated that “the ‘reasonably calculated’ qualification reflects a recognition that crafting an appropriate program of education requires a prospective judgment by school officials. . . . informed not only be the expertise of school officials, but also by the child’s parents or guardians.”  Endrew F., at *11.

Finally, the Court recognized that because the adequacy of the IEP turns on the uniqueness of every situation, a reviewing court should give deference “based on the application of expertise and the exercise of judgment by school authorities” and cannot “substitute their own notions of sound educational policy for those of the school authorities which they review.”  Endrew F., at *16.

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