Three years after a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision on the rights of students with disabilities to a free appropriate public education, a new analysis suggests the ruling hasn’t changed things much.

School districts continue to prevail in the vast majority of disputes and many courts view the ruling in the case known as Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District as more of a minor clarification than a significant sea change in how the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act should be applied.

In the March 2017 ruling, the Supreme Court unanimously found that individualized education programs “must be appropriately ambitious in light of (a student’s) circumstances, just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most children in the regular classroom.” Moreover, the court said that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”

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The heightened standard for IEPs outlined in the ruling was hailed by disability advocates at the time.

The review published recently in the N.Y.U. Journal of Legislation & Public Policy looked at federal court decisions in 142 special education cases between March 2017 and March 2020.

School districts won 115 of the decisions that were reached after the Endrew F. ruling came down, the analysis found.

In cases where a pre-Endrew F. decision was appealed, the ruling was affirmed at a rate of about 90 percent, attorney William Moran wrote in the paper.

Notably, however, Moran found that 87 percent of decisions did not factor all three requirements of the Endrew F. decision — that IEP goals enable children with disabilities to “make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances,” have “challenging objectives” and be “appropriately ambitious.” The analysis indicates that this is curious given that legal experts and the federal Department of Education have agreed that all three prongs of the Endrew F. decision are binding.

Despite the findings, Moran acknowledges that Endrew F. could be playing a larger role behind the scenes than court rulings might suggest.

“It is possible that Endrew F. has had a more student-friendly impact than these data can possibly represent if many school districts — or student advocates, for that matter — opted to settle their cases in light of its holding,” he wrote.

Selene Almazan, legal director for the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates, a nonprofit that represents special education attorneys, said it’s important to note that half of federal court circuits have raised their FAPE standard in light of the Endrew F. decision. And the case has practical implications for parents in IEP meetings.

“I do think that the progress component of Endrew F. has been something that parents and advocates can use on the ground in IEP meetings,” Almazan said. “Endrew F. has now clarified the importance of seeing actual, measurable progress under a student’s IEP.”

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