What Level of Education Does the IDEA Require?

This is a question that plagues parents and teachers of special education students almost daily. And though the U.S. Supreme Court has remained silent on the issue since 1982, it looks as if it won’t remain silent for much longer. Today, the Supreme Court granted certiorari in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, in which the Court will decide what level of educational benefit that school districts must confer on students with disabilities in order to provide them with the free appropriate public education (FAPE) required by the IDEA.

The case originates from Douglas County, Colorado, where the parents of an elementary student, Endrew F., challenged the level of educational benefit that Endrew was receiving as a result of his Individualized Education Plan (IEP). Endrew was diagnosed with Autism at a young age. He attended preschool through 4th grade in the Douglas County School District. Endrew began having behavioral problems in school that continued to worsen and interfered with his academic progress. His parents, frustrated by Endrew’s lack of progress toward the goals specified in his 4th grade IEP, rejected the school’s proposed 5th grade IEP. The parents withdrew Endrew from the school district and placed him in a private school that specialized in educating children with autism. They then filed a due process complaint against the Douglas County School District seeking tuition reimbursement for Endrew’s private placement.

The administrative hearing officer ruled in favor of the school district and declined to award Endrew’s parents with tuition reimbursement. The parents filed suit under the IDEA in federal district court, which too found that because Endrew had made some minimal progress toward his IEP goals, the school district had met its obligations under the IDEA. Endrew’s parents then appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. The Tenth Circuit ruled that the applicable standard is whether the proposed IEP is reasonably calculated to provide “some” educational benefit, and because Endrew was making some progress towards his IEP goals, the school district had met its obligation to provide Endrew with a free appropriate public education. Though the court recognized that Endrew appeared to be thriving in his private school, it reiterated that the public school district was not required to pay private school tuition as long as Endrew made some progress while enrolled in the district.

Because there appears to be a split among the federal circuits as to what level of educational benefit is required, with some circuits requiring a “substantial” or “heightened” benefit and others, like the Tenth Circuit, requiring only a minimum benefit, the Supreme Court granted the parents’ Petition for Writ of Certiorari to clarify the obligations of public school districts.

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