I. DECISION SUMMARY
In Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District RE-1, No. 15-827, 2017 WL 1066260, 137 S. Ct. 988, 69 IDELR 174 (U.S. Mar. 22, 2017), the Supreme Court overturned a decision of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals that had applied a “merely more than de minimis” standard for the duty under the IDEA to provide a free, appropriate public education to children with disabilities served by public school districts. The case involved a child with autism whose parents placed him in a private school program because they were dissatisfied with the progress he was making in public school under his fourth-grade individualized education program (IEP). They thought his academic progress had stalled and did not think he would be able to achieve much more under a similar IEP proposed for fifth grade. In public school, he displayed severe behavior problems, including screaming in class, climbing over furniture and other students, and running away. He was also extremely fearful of commonplace things and places. The private school provided him a behavioral intervention plan identifying his most challenging behaviors and establishing strategies to deal with them. “Within months, Endrew’s behavior improved significantly, permitting him to make a degree of progress that had eluded him in public school.” 2017 WL 1066260, at *7. His parents sought tuition reimbursement. The administrative law judge, the district court, and the court of appeals all ruled against the parents. The Tenth Circuit interpreted the Supreme Court’s sole case on the appropriate education standard, Board of Education v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (1982), to require simply that the child be offered some educational benefit, interpreted as merely more than de minimis.
A unanimous Supreme Court vacated and remanded. The opinion by Chief Justice Roberts interpreted Rowley’s reading of appropriate education as taking a middle position between no enforceable standard at all and affording the child an opportunity to achieve her full potential commensurate with the opportunity provided children without disabilities. In Endrew, Court emphasized Rowley’s language requiring a substantively adequate education as well its statement that it was not establishing a single test for the adequacy of educational benefits children should receive. Id. at *8-*9. The Court read Rowley as pointing to “a general approach: 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.” Id. at *10. The approach focuses on the reasonable, not the ideal, but it emphasizes progress for the individual child given his or her unique needs. The Court reaffirmed Rowley’s statement that if a child is fully integrated in the regular classroom, passing marks and advancement from grade to grade through the general curriculum will ordinarily satisfy the IDEA standard, though a footnote to the opinion warns that, “This guidance should not be interpreted as an inflexible rule,” and is not a holding that every child advancing from one grade to the next “is automatically receiving an appropriate education.” Id. at *11 n.2 (citation omitted). The Court said that a child not fully integrated in the regular classroom may not have the ability to achieve at grade level, but the IEP for that child should be “appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances,” a standard “markedly more demanding than the ‘merely more than de minimis’ test applied by the Tenth Circuit.” Id. at *11. “The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.” Id.
The Court rejected the parents’ argument that children with disabilities must be offered an education that provides the opportunities to attain self-sufficiency and contribute to society substantially equal to the opportunities provided children without disabilities. The Court noted that a similar standard was rejected in Rowley and Congress, though it revised the Act several times since 1982, did not materially alter the statute’s definition of free, appropriate public education. Id. at *12. The Court said it was not creating “a bright-line rule,” but said the absence of the rule should not be taken as an invitation to courts to supplant the role of school authorities, to whose expertise and professional judgment deference should be paid. Id. The case was remanded for further proceedings.
II. PRELIMINARY OBSERVATIONS
A. There is much that the Court does not define and will require further discussion, including what “appropriately ambitious,” “challenging objectives,” and “markedly more demanding” than de minimis mean in operation, what responses must be made to children’s unique needs, and in what situations will children who are fully integrated in the regular classroom and are achieving at grade level be considered not to be receiving an appropriate education in light of their individual circumstances.
B. The Court was more definitive in some of its pronouncements –
- FAPE is not “an education that aims 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.”
- The student’s IEP is not appropriate if it is reasonably calculated to confer “educational benefit [that is] merely … more than de minimus” or enable the student “to make some progress.”
- The district’s IEP need not be “ideal” just “reasonable.”
but not as much with others –
- The district must offer an IEP “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”
- The IEP must “set out a plan for pursuing academic and functional advancement.”
- “… [G]oals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”
C. In clarifying Rowley’s substantive standard, the Court generally divided students with disabilities into two groups – those fully integrated into regular education classes and those in special education classes. However, this apportionment of students with disabilities into two groups seems too simple and does not take into account the complexity of considerable numbers of IEPs. Many students with disabilities spend a portion of their school day in regular education classes (with or without supplementary aides and services) and a portion of their day in special education classes, receiving “pull-out” related services, or both. The substantive appropriateness of the IEPs of students with disabilities who bounce in and out from regular education and special education classes / pull-out related services throughout the school day, will require a more complex analysis than the seemingly two-dimensional approach adopted by the Court.
D. This said, the Court does provide some guidance, albeit somewhat lacking in clarity, to measure progress.
1. Students Fully Integrated in the Regular Classroom. According to the Court, for a “fully integrated” student in the regular education classroom, “progress appropriate in light of” the student’s circumstances is “progress in the general education curriculum,” as measured, generally, by –
- performance in regular examinations;
- passing marks/grades;
- advancement from grade to grade;
- other indicators of progress in the general education curriculum utilized by the district.
2. Students Not Fully Integrated in the Regular Classroom and Able to Achieve on Grade Level. Here, “progress appropriate in light of” the student’s circumstances is determined by various principles, including –
- The “IEP need not aim for grade-level advancement.”
- The IEP “must be appropriately ambitious in light of [the student’s] circumstances … just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most [students] in the regular classroom.”
- The IEP must “plan for pursuing academic and functional advancement.”
- The annual goals provide the student with the “chance to meet challenging objectives.”
III. PRACTICAL CONSIDERATIONS
A. Though more time (and, likely, litigation) is needed to fully appreciate the clarified, substantive standard articulated by the Court in Endrew F., following are practical questions the hearing officer should consider when completing the record or discussing evidentiary matters with the parties and their representatives.
1. To determine whether a particular annual goal / objective is “challenging,” seek to establish in the record –
- What is the student’s present level of performance in the area addressed by the goal?
- Whether the goal addresses the identified need(s) in the present level of performance of the student.
- What is the student’s rate of progress in the area of identified need(s)?
- Whether the goal is reasonably calculated to afford the student a reasonable opportunity to achieve the goal within one school year given the student’s rate of progress.
- Whether the goal is measurable.
2. Whether an increase in the intensity of instruction is necessary to allow the student a reasonable opportunity to achieve challenging goals / objectives.
3. Whether supplementary aides and services / related services in the regular / special education classroom is necessary to allow the student a reasonable opportunity to advance from grade to grade / achieve challenging goals / objectives.
4. Whether the appropriateness of an IEP hinges on the IEP goals as a whole or each goal independently.
5. In challenges filed post March 22, 2017, should the IEP team be given the opportunity to revisit an IEP developed prior to Endrew F. to confirm it is consistent with Endrew F.?