In yesterday’s unanimous decision in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District RE-1, the Supreme Court articulated the standard by which federal courts should evaluate challenges to individualized education programs (“IEPs”) for students with disabilities.  To pass muster under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”), an IEP, according to the Court, must be “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”  Op. at 14-15.

The IDEA specifically requires that students with disabilities receive a “free appropriate public education” (“FAPE”), a term that is itself undefined in the statute.  The Supreme Court initially faced the interpretation of the FAPE requirement thirty-five years ago in Board of Education of Hendrick Hudson Central School District, Westchester County v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (1982).  In Rowley, the Court made some general observations about the FAPE standard, but confined its ruling to the specific facts of the case, leaving the question of what substantive standard applies to another day.

That day came when the Court agreed to hear the Endrew case.  In this specific case, a student diagnosed with autism was being educated in public schools. He exhibited educational and behavioral difficulties, and his parents eventually decided to enroll him in a private school specializing in children with autism.  To be reimbursed this tuition, however, the parents had to demonstrate that the IEP being offered by the public school district did not provide their child with a FAPE.

An administrative law judge and a federal district court ruled that the proposed IEP did provide a FAPE.  The court of appeals agreed because, in its view, the IEP was reasonably calculated to confer an education that is “more the de minimis.”  See 798 F.3d 1329, 1338 (relying on Rowley’s statement that an IEP needs to be reasonably calculated to provide “some educational benefit”).  Courts of appeals across the country had used different language to describe the level of educational benefit that IEPs should be designed to seek, so the Supreme Court decided to weigh in and bring uniformity to the discussion.

The Supreme Court ultimately rejected the court of appeals’ test, holding that the standard is “markedly more demanding” than the “merely more than de minimis” test.  Op. at 14.  Much of this conclusion (and much of the Court’s overall discussion) was driven by the IDEA’s focus on the individualized inquiry that is to be specifically targeted toward the needs of each child.  The Court pointed to several examples in the statute where Congress expressly requires this individualized focus, and further noted that the Rowley decision gave some examples of how this individualized inquiry is implemented in practice.

While the Court rejected the standard applied by the Tenth Circuit (and pursued by the school district), the Court also rejected the standard proposed by the parents.  Specifically, the parents claimed that a FAPE must “aim[] to provide a child with a disability opportunities to achieve academic success, attain self-sufficiency, and contribute to society that are substantially equal to the opportunities afforded children without disabilities.”  Noting that this proposal was “strikingly similar” to a standard rejected in Rowley, the Court “decline[d] to interpret the FAPE provision in a manner so plainly at odds with the Court’s analysis in that case.”  Op. at 15.

Instead, the Court carved out a middle ground, holding that the IDEA “requires an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”  Op. at 11, 14-15.  Notably, the Court expressly declined to elaborate on the word “appropriate,” again emphasizing that the unique circumstances of each child drive the analysis.  Thus, while courts are not to substitute their own judgment for that of the educational professionals, those professionals are expected to be able to provide explanations for their IEP decisions.

What this means for you:

 Several key quotes from the opinion highlight the important takeaways from today’s decision:

  • “To meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” It will take a while to see how lower federal courts react to this new standard, but this will be the paradigm by which all IEP challenges are reviewed going forward.  The “merely more than de minimis” standard applied by some federal courts is conclusively rejected.
  • “The ‘reasonably calculated’ qualification reflects a recognition that crafting an appropriate program of education requires a prospective judgment by school officials.” The relevant inquiry remains prospective (as opposed to a retrospective review of actual outcomes).  This inquiry is fact-intensive and involves school officials and parents.
  • “Any review of an IEP must appreciate that the question is whether the IEP is reasonable, not whether the court regards it as ideal.” In what will likely prove to be an oft-quoted passage in litigation, the Court warns against courts substituting their judgments for those of education professionals.
  • “A focus on the particular child is at the core of the IDEA.” This is one example of a frequent refrain from the Court, reiterating several times that this inquiry must be individualized to the particular student.
  • “A reviewing court may fairly expect [school] authorities to be able to offer a cogent and responsive explanation for their decisions that shows the IEP is reasonably calculated to enable the child to make progress in light of his circumstances.” In another line likely to be frequently quoted in litigation, the Court reiterates the importance of school districts offering justifications for their decisions.  School district should strive to develop complete records of their bases for decision and be responsive to legitimate parent concerns in the IEP process.

Disclosure: Husch Blackwell LLP co-authored and filed an amicus brief on behalf of the Council of the Great City Schools in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District RE-1.