Supreme Court Establishes a New Standard for Educational Benefit

By: Paul O'Neill

Yesterday, the Supreme Court of the United States issued a unanimous 8-0 ruling in the landmark Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District case. The amicus brief we submitted in partnership with the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools can be found here. Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Roberts stated that, “[t]o meet its substantive obligation under IDEA, a school must offer an IEP [Individual Education Program] reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

This is not the standard either party asked the Court to adopt. There has been a split between federal courts, with some circuits interpreting the Court’s earlier Rowley decision as requiring only that a “de minimus,” slightly more than nothing, educational benefit be provided to students with disabilities, and others that a substantially higher, “meaningful benefit” be provided. In agreeing to hear the Endrew F. case, the Court took on the task of settling this dispute. But rather than asking the Court to apply the “meaningful benefit” standard, the Petitioners (parents of a boy with autism seeking more robust services than his Colorado district was willing to offer) sought an even higher standard. They asked the court to find that students with disabilities under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) are entitled to “educational opportunities substantially equal to the opportunities offered to students without disabilities.”  The Court said no – noting that this language is very similar to the language sought by Petitioners in the Rowley case and explicitly rejected by the Rowley Court. Since the Petitioners didn’t seek a “meaningful benefit” standard, the Chief Justice did not mention it. Instead, he articulated a new standard.

The Court’s new standard is worth repeating, because it will soon become the most quoted sentence in American special education:

To meet its substantive obligation under IDEA, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.

The U.S. Department of Education, states, cities and lower courts will now begin figuring out what that phrase means in application. Clearly, it is a higher standard than the “de minimus” one followed by the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and the Respondent Douglas County School District. The Court explicitly rejects that standard as too low and explains that IEPs must provide “challenging objectives” to students that are in sync with their “unique needs.” The opinion says that programs provided to students with IEPs must be “appropriately ambitious.” Citing Rowley, the Chief Justice noted that the Court has made it clear that for students with disabilities who are able to be fully integrated in a regular classroom, they expect a program that is reasonably calculated to enable a child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade. Since traditional grade to grade advancement is not possible or relevant for all students with disabilities, programs must be appropriate in light of each child’s circumstances, whatever those may be.

The Court also put a new spin on deference with a clear warning to schools and districts to articulate a coherent and thoughtful position in each IEP, so a court has something real to defer to when it comes to that. Educational policy is for states and educators, but it needs to be explained coherently to earn deference. 

The Court’s ruling seems clear, but it raises important questions. Is this new standard higher or lower than the “meaningful benefit” standard? Would use of the “meaningful benefit” standard be consistent with this ruling, as one way to articulate what is appropriate in light of each child’s circumstances? How much leeway do Local Education Agencies such as districts and some charter schools have in deciding how much educational benefit is enough and what level of services are required? Will such a flexible standard lead to even more variability by location than has been the case up until now, or will a more uniform pattern emerge?

Time will tell. What we know for certain is that the Supreme Court unanimously and quite explicitly rejected the idea that students with disabilities are only entitled to a minimal benefit from their education. That era of jurisprudence is over unless Congress decides to impose such a rule. The National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools welcomes and celebrates this precedent-setting impact of the Endrew F. ruling, and looks forward to working together with other disability and charter school-focused organizations to further understand and define its meaning and apply its mandate.