Free Appropriate Public Education
Petitioner Endrew F., a student with autism, attended school in Douglas County from preschool to fourth grade and received special education services through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) during this time. When the District proposed his fifth grade IEP, Endrew’s parents removed him from public school and unilaterally placed him at a private school that specializes in educating students with autism because they did not believe he was making meaningful progress on his IEP goals. During the fall of Endrew’s fifth grade year, the District proposed a new IEP, but parents rejected it claiming that the final IEP proposed by the District did not provide Endrew with a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), as is required by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Endrew’s parents filed a complaint seeking reimbursement for private tuition. In response to parents’ claim, an Administrative Law Judge found in favor of the District. The District Court and Tenth Circuit affirmed this decision.
The Supreme Court first addressed the FAPE requirement 35 years ago in Board of Education of Hendricks Hudson Central School District v. Rowley. The Rowley court held that a student has received FAPE if the student’s IEP is “reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits.” The Rowley court stated that for students who are receiving instruction in the regular classroom, this would typically require an IEP “reasonably calculated to enable the child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade.”
The U.S. Supreme Court agreed with the Rowley decision that for students included in the general education environment, an IEP should typically be “reasonably calculated to enable the child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade.” The Court recognized, however, that this standard may not be appropriate for all students with disabilities, and for students not included in the general education setting IDEA requires that the IEP be “appropriately ambitious in light of [the student’s] circumstances.” The Court held that the substantive obligation under IDEA requires a district to offer an “educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” While this standard is significantly more demanding that the “merely more than de minimis” standard applied by the Tenth Circuit, it is less demanding than the parents’ proposed standard that students with disabilities be provided with educational opportunities that are “substantially equal to the opportunities afforded children without disabilities.” The Court declined to elaborate on what “appropriate” progress looks like, stating that this will depend on the unique circumstances of each child. The Court stated that when a court is reviewing the IEP, it must look at whether the IEP is “reasonable,” not whether it is “ideal,” and that deference should continue to be given to school authorities based on the application of expertise and exercise of judgment.
Cassandra Black, IASB Law Clerk