Just how much benefit must a student receive through special education to meet the goals of the key federal law?
Four decades after the passage of what was to become the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the U.S. Supreme Court plans to take up that question in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District.
Experts in special education law say the court’s decision could mean as much to educators as the landmark case Rowley v. Hendrick Hudson Central School District, which in 1982 defined the central question of special education law: What is a “free, appropriate public education?”
Endrew F. “potentially will be as important as Rowley to shape what we do in special education for years to come,” said Antonis Katsiyannis, the president of the Council for Exceptional Children and a professor at Clemson University with a focus on special education law. "[It’s] very exciting to have the Supreme Court addressing the meaning of [free, appropriate education] again.”
‘Meaningful’ vs. ‘Some’
In Rowley, the Supreme Court said that the IDEA requires instruction that is “reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefit.” The court intentionally declined to say just how much benefit would be adequate. "[C]ourts must be careful to avoid imposing their view of preferable educational methods upon the states,” Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote for the six-justice majority.
But lower courts have grappled with that question and come up with different terms. Should the educational benefit to students be “meaningful”? Are schools required to offer just “some” benefit? Or can the standard be met if educational benefits are little more than trivial?
That’s the question that the newer case is intended to answer.
Endrew, called “Drew” in court briefs, is now a 17-year-old student with autism living in suburban Denver. In 2010, his parents pulled him out of the 66,000-student Douglas County district because they said he wasn’t making any meaningful educational progress in public school. The parents argued that the district should be required to pay for Drew’s private school tuition.
An administrative-law judge, a federal district judge, and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals all decided against the parents. The appeals-court ruling in August 2015 said that Drew was gaining “some” educational benefit from his individualized education program. Referring to an earlier case in the same circuit, the court also said the IDEA requires that special education only offer a more than “de minimis,” or trivial, benefit.
While the parents lost at the lower-court levels, they gained a powerful supporter when they appealed to the Supreme Court—the federal government.
“No parent or educator in America would say that a child has received an ‘appropriate’ or a ‘specially suitable’ or ‘proper’ education ‘in the circumstances’ when all the child has received are benefits that are barely more than trivial,” wrote the U.S. solicitor general’s office, urging the Supreme Court to take the case. “That is particularly true when a child is capable of achieving much more.”
The 10th Circuit Court is among several that have said educational benefits under special education need be only more than trivial, the solicitor general’s brief said. Other circuits, however, have stated that educational benefits must be “meaningful,” a more robust standard. That is a disagreement that only the U.S. Supreme Court can resolve, the solicitor general’s brief says.
Setting a Standard
Paula Hans, a spokeswoman for the Douglas County district, said in a statement that “it would be inappropriate to discuss the specifics of the case while it is still being litigated, but the court’s decision is not a decision on the merits, and we look forward to addressing the issues before the court.”
Ronald Wenkart, the general counsel for the Orange County education department in California, explored those differing circuit-court standards in a 2009 article for West’s Education Law Reporter. Some circuits have at times used both “meaningful educational benefit” and “some educational benefit,” his paper says, leaving even the judges in those circuits questioning the ambiguity.
The impact of the high court’s decision could rest on how broadly the justices decide to interpret the question, Wenkart said in an interview.
“They could set a standard and explain what the standard is,” Wenkart said, a move that he believes would lead to more harmonious meetings between parents and school officials. Conflicts over educational progress currently arise all the time, he said.
“This actually might be better for the courts to decide. Congress could add to the law, but that’s probably going to be a huge political fight. I don’t know if Congress could actually agree,” Wenkart said.
Having the Conversation
Kathleen Sullivan, the chief counsel for the Colorado Association of School Boards, agrees that the case is significant, because there are only a “handful of Supreme Court cases interpreting the law.” However, Sullivan said she doesn’t see the conflict among the circuits that the parents have alleged.
“School districts across the country really talk about providing a free, appropriate public education to students with disabilities and do not talk about there being a higher or lower standard in certain jurisdictions,” she said.
She also noted that Congress has amended the special education law several times since Rowley was decided in 1982. “If Congress wanted to tell the Supreme Court that it was wrong in Rowley, Congress knows how to do so, and it hasn’t,” she said.
Jack D. Robinson, the lawyer representing the parents, said he has two objectives in the suit: first, to convince the high court that the IDEA requires more than trivial educational progress; and second, “to articulate a coherent standard to the Supreme Court for them to adopt and flesh out and for the nation to apply.”
“What are we investing these millions and millions of dollars on? Are we serving the purpose of the IDEA by requiring some meaningful benefit in light of the child’s potential?” Robinson asked. “It’s important, regardless of the outcome, to have this conversation.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 12, 2016 edition of Education Week as Court to Weigh Level of Benefits for Special Ed. Students