Supreme Court FAPE Ruling May Be A Watershed Moment
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision affirming a high standard for the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act mandate that children with disabilities be provided a free appropriate public education is likely to have significant implications for years to come.
In a ruling last month, the high court found that public schools must provide students with disabilities more than a minimal benefit.
“When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing ‘merely more than de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the ruling. “The IDEA demands more.”
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Individualized education programs “must be appropriately ambitious in light of (a child’s) circumstances, just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most children in the regular classroom,” the court determined.
The decision marked the first time in over three decades that the Supreme Court weighed in on FAPE. It came in a case known as Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District that was brought by the parents of a Colorado boy with autism.
The parents placed their son at a private school and sought reimbursement from the school district claiming that he had made little progress attending public school. The family’s claim was rejected by a lower court, however, because the boy had received “some” educational benefit.
“I think it’s going to be a defining moment, the Brown v. Board of Education moment for the disability community,” Gary Mayerson, a New York City civil rights attorney who specializes in representing people with autism, said of the ruling.
While the Supreme Court decision itself does not set a new standard, Mayerson said it clarifies Congress’ intent in the most recent update to IDEA, which came in 2004.
Mayerson said he expects an initial burst of litigation following the ruling, but ultimately thinks that the decision will lead to fewer special education court cases.
“At first there will be a flurry of lawsuits to clean up this mess since a lot of schools have been following the ‘some benefits’ standard,” Mayerson said. “Hopefully, once the dust settles, it should be easier for parents.”
Before the ruling, various courts across the country had interpreted IDEA’s FAPE mandate differently. Accordingly, the impact of the Endrew F. decision could be more heavily felt in some regions than others.
Significantly, the Supreme Court decision was unanimous, advocates for students with disabilities say, leaving little doubt about the court’s intent.
“It was an 8-0 decision, which was really gratifying,” said Selene Almazan, legal director for the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates and a practicing special education attorney in Maryland. “This is a huge decision for students with disabilities and their families because it sets the bar high enough to challenge students so they can succeed in a meaningful way.”
The timing of the decision could not have been better, Almazan said, coming right when school districts and families are sitting down to reevaluate IEPs for next year.
Almazan indicated that she has already brought up language from the Endrew F. decision at IEP meetings she’s attended in recent weeks and COPAA is actively citing the new ruling in court filings.
Meanwhile, however, school leaders appear to be working to downplay the implications of the Supreme Court decision.
“While this is undoubtedly a new standard for FAPE, it is one with little substance or new meaning,” reads a statement from AASA, The School Superintendents Association. “AASA is fairly confident that the vast majority of school districts are already crafting IEPs that enable a child to make progress in light of the child’s circumstances. That said, districts should take care to make sure that they can provide ‘a cogent and responsive explanation’ for the IEPs they produce, particularly for students who are not expected to perform on grade-level.”