Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, what level of educational benefit must school districts provide children with disabilities to secure each child’s right to free appropriate public education?
This case will decide what unified standard public schools must provide students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”). IDEA requires schools in receipt of federal funds to provide an Individualized Education Program (“IEP”) for each student with a disability. The IEP must comply with each student’s right to Free Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”). Should the school district fail to comply, parents are permitted to enroll their child into private school and seek reimbursement from the school district. Endrew F. argued that the Douglas County School District did not provide Endrew, a child with autism, the appropriate level of educational care because Endrew did not make any meaningful progress with his IEP. The Douglas County School District responded that Endrew’s receipt of some educational benefit was sufficient to satisfy the FAPE standard, and thus not a violation of the IDEA. The Supreme Court will likely resolve the Circuit conflict between the “meaningful educational benefit” standard adopted by some courts of appeals and the “merely more than de minimis” educational benefit standard that the Tenth Circuit maintained.
Questions as Framed for the Court by the Parties
What is the level of educational benefit that school districts must confer on children with disabilities to provide them with the free appropriate public education guaranteed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq.?
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act ("IDEA") dictates that public schools must provide children with disabilities a Free Appropriate Public Education ("FAPE"). See 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1). To ensure this, schools must provide an Individualized Education Program ("IEP"), a written document that describes a student’s educational goals and plans to achieve those goals. See Jefferson Cty. Sch. Dist. R-1 v. Elizabeth E. ex rel. Roxanne B., 388 Fed. Appx. 330 (2012). The 1982 decision in Bd. of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (1982), established the standard that the IEP should be “reasonably calculated” to confer an educational benefit on the child. See Bd. of Educ. V. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 207 (1982). Under IDEA, if parents feel that their children’s schools are not providing a FAPE, parents may enroll their children in private school and seek tuition reimbursement from their school district. See Endrew F. v. Douglas Cty. Sch. Dist. RE-1, 798 F.3d 1329, 1333 (10th Cir. 2015). The standard for IEP has been interpreted differently across different circuits: some hold that there must be a heightened or “meaningful” educational benefit; others (such as the Tenth Circuit below) maintain that some educational benefit is sufficient, which the Tenth Circuit has interpreted to mean that the educational benefit must merely be more than de minimis. See id. at 1338.
Petitioner, Endrew F., who at age two was diagnosed with autism, originally attended a public school until the fourth grade. Endrew F., 798 F.3d at 1333. At this point, Endrew was failing to meet his IPE goals, and his parents determined the school was failing to help Endrew learn. Id. In May 2010, Endrew’s parents pulled him out of the public school system and placed him in a private school where he was able to make "academic, social, and behavioral progress”; his parents then sought reimbursement for tuition from the school district. Id.
Endrew initially filed an IDEA complaint with the Colorado Board of Education, stating that the school district had denied Endrew a FAPE and seeking reimbursement for Endrew’s private-school tuition. Endrew F., 798 F.3d at 1332. The Administrative Law Judge denied the complaint and concluded that Endrew’s IEP was clear and that Endrew had made “some academic progress” which was sufficient for IDEA standards. See id. at 1342.
Endrew then sued the school district in the Federal District Court of Colorado for denial of FAPE and inadequate IEP planning. Endrew F., 798 F.3d at 1342. The District Court held that Endrew had received IDEA-compliant education. Id. at 1332.This was based on the findings that Endrew had shown “at the least, minimal progress” in the public school, where the standard for IDEA compliance was that the State must provide only “some educational benefit.” Id. at 1340.
Endrew appealed, but the Tenth Circuit affirmed. Endrew F., 798 F.3d at 1332. IDEA, as interpreted by Rowley, required States to provide “merely more than de minimis” in providing “some educational benefit” to students under the IDEA. Id. at 1338. The IEP that the school district had provided Endrew had been adequate under the standard. Id. at 1342.
Petitioner Endrew F. (“Endrew”) argues that the Tenth Circuit’s de minimis benefit standard contravenes the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s (“IDEA”) decree to provide a Free Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”). See Brief for Petitioner, Endrew F., a Minor by and Through His Parents and Next Friends, Joseph F. and Jennifer F. at 15. Examining the IDEA's text, purpose, and structure, Endrew argues that the IDEA requires school districts to do all they can, within their means, to promote greater academic achievement. See id.. at 16. In analyzing the text of the IDEA, Endrew juxtaposes “appropriate” and “de minimis," activities, the former being specifically suitable, fit or proper, and the later being trifling, eligible or insignificant. See id. at 16-17. In doing so, Endrew contends that the Tenth Circuit’s de minimis standard suggests that a student’s minimum achievement in reading without any achievement in the subject of math would constitute an “appropriate” provision of public education. See id. at 17. Endrew argues that this ideal is contrary to the very purpose of the IDEA. See id. Turning to statutory interpretation and Supreme Court precedents, Endrew purports that the word “appropriate” modifies “public education” in the IDEA, in an effort to suggest a “more than merely de minimis” education standard. See id. Further, Endrew construes the word “appropriate” as embodying Court precedents that consistently recognize the importance of education to both the personal and professional development of individuals. See id. at 18. Endrew claims that the IDEA’s provision of “appropriate education” signals to schools that they must attain more than just-above-trivial education standards for their students with disabilities. See id. at 19.
Respondent Douglas County School District (“Douglas County”) argues that the word “appropriate” in “free appropriate public education” should not be read expansively in light of the IDEA’s purpose. See Brief for Respondent, Douglas County School District RE-1 at 19. Douglas County points to Bd. of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (1982), which struck down a student’s claim that “appropriate” was synonymous to “specially suitable.” See id. at 19. In addition, Douglas County looks to the legislative history to conclude that Congress equated “appropriate education” to the receipt of personalized, but not more than de minimis, services. See id. at 20. Douglas County argues that the textual source of the “some educational” benefit standard is explicit. See id. at 37. They contend that the sole requirement of the IDEA is that it be reasonably calculated to confer some educational benefit. See id. at 38. Douglas County rejects Endrew’s argument that a more than de minimis benefit is a trivial benefit. See id. at 38. They argue that any reasonable official reading the IDEA would recognize its aim as providing something more than a trivial benefit. See id. at 38.
PURPOSE OF THE IDEA
Endrew argues that one must look at the object and policy of a statute on a whole in order to determine that statute’s purpose. See Brief for Petitioner at 19. In applying this logic to the IDEA, Endrew contends that historical precedent along with Congress’s explicit intent shine light on the purpose of the IDEA’s “free appropriate public education” provision. See id. at 20–21. Endrew claims that the purpose of this provision, as declared by Congress, is to improve educational results for children with disabilities and to prepare them for additional education, employment opportunities, and independent living. See id. at 20. Endrew supports this finding by analyzing historical precedent: before the IDEA was passed, children with disabilities were neither having their educational needs met, nor receiving adequate educational services to ensure full equality of opportunity. See id. Endrew rebukes any notion that a statute designed to promote equal opportunity and effective educational efforts would simultaneously allow states to seek di minimum educational advancements for children with disabilities. See id. at 21.
Additionally, Endrew claims that the IEP is the primary vehicle for implementing the IDEA, and thus, sheds light on the “appropriate” purpose of FAPE. See Brief for Petitioner at 22. Endew questions why the IEP would require annual goals to ensure that a child’s educational needs are met, a description of how meeting these goals will be monitored, and results that measure the child’s ability to improve if schools only needed to provide de minimis educational benefits. See id. at 22–23. Endrew purports that Congress linked the IDEA with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act’s (“ESEA”) insistence on challenging academic standards and individualized assessments because it found that children in special education classes were falling behind academically. See id. at 28. In turn, Endrew provides that children with disabilities are to be held to the same standards as all other children in effort to promote equality of opportunity. See id. According to Endrew, this shifts a school’s focus from process accountability to substantive performance accountability, which arguably cannot be met through mere de minimis educational benefits. See id.
Douglas County argues that the IDEA’s obligations are inherently unambiguous. See Brief for Respondent at 24–25. Douglas County reasons that the IDEA was enacted pursuant to the Spending Clause, and thus, its components are to be interpreted much like a contract. See id. at 25. Douglas Country contends that the clear-notice requirement regarding obligations that go with federal funds, supports the argument that the IDEA’s standard must remain unambiguous. See id. at 27. Accusing Endrew of dubiously shifting from a standard of substantial educational benefit to substantially equal opportunity, Douglas County argues that this shifting standard conflicts with the IDEA’s explicit clear-notice rule. See id. Douglas County also denies Endrew’s claims that the IDEA requires states to provide substantially equal educational opportunity or significant progress; the County argues that an official looking at the definition of the FAPE’s key terms, sub-definitions, requirements, and cross-references could never identify a requirement that states must provide substantial educational progress to children with disabilities. See id. at 29. Douglas County asserts that this sort of substantive standard is absent from the IDEA’s language. See id. For instance, Douglas Country argues that the phrase “free appropriate education” is unambiguously defined under the IDEA, and provides that four explicit requirements be met. See id. at 30. Douglas County argues that the “some benefits standard” is also consistent with the IDEA’s purpose to provide (a) procedures that IEP teams must follow in developing an individual child’s IEP and (b) systemic requirements that educational agencies must implement state-wide. See id. at 38. Because it is through these means that Congress chose promote educational achievements, Douglas County contends that it is unnecessary to infer that a substantive standard stems from Congressional intent. See id. at 38–39.
UNDERSTANDING THE ROWLEY HOLDING
Endrew claims that the Tenth Circuit’s “merely more than de minimis” benefit test misinterprets Rowley. See Brief for Petitioner at 29. Endrew agrees with the Court’s decision in Rowley, that the school district was not obliged to provide a disabled student with a potential-maximizing education. See id. at 30. Nevertheless, Endrew highlights a portion of the case holding that the Tenth Circuit overlooks; describing the purpose of the IDEA as to supply enough substantial educational benefit to make access “meaningful.” See id. Endrew argues that this provision, mandating that an education be reasonably calculated to enable the child to achieve passing marks, and advance grades, is more creditable than and contradicts the Tenth Circuit’s de minimis benefit approach. See id. In addition to arguing that this de minimis benefit standard negates the idea of making access to public education meaningful, Endrew claims that the Tenth Circuit misinterpreted the “some” educational benefit” clause in Rowley. See id. at 31 Endrew asserts that this provision read in isolation may mean a “slight amount,” but when read in the context of the case opinion, it modifies the text to suggest that the IDEA imposes not only procedural, but also a substantive obligation on schools to provide individualized instruction and services. See id. Endrew turns to subsequent amendments to the IDEA in 1997 and 2004, to support his claim that providing a appropriate education must also include substantive provisions of equality of opportunity, while maximizing students’ access to curriculum. See id. at 36, 38.
Douglas Country argues that Rowley’s “some educational benefit standard” is the only level of benefit that a school district must confer on children with disabilities to remain compliant with FAPE requirements. See Brief for Respondent at 13. Rebutting Endrew’s claim that schools carry the burden of providing substantive benefits, Douglas County turns to the IDEA’s text to argue that states must only adopt procedures which would result in the instruction for each child. See id. at 14. In describing the requirements of these procedural benefits, Douglas County claims that Rowley’s provision of some educational benefit must not be construed as requiring a particular level of benefit, and that the only insufficient level of benefit is none. See id. at 15. Douglas County argues that the Rowley Court explicitly rejected any substantive standard prescribing the level of education to be accorded children with disabilities. See id. at 19. Identifying the Court’s reluctance to establish a single substantive test, Douglas County argues that Rowley reflects the Court’s acknowledgement that whether a child’s IEP is reasonable calculated to confer benefit will depend on individualized, but not substantive, circumstances. See id. at 20. Douglas County also reproves Endrew’s claim that Rowley’s provision of “meaningful” access to education must provide more than a de minimis benefit. See id. at 20–21. Douglas Country accords the Rowley’s holding as providing that a meaningful education need only be sufficient to confer some educational benefit upon a handicapped child. See id. at 21. Pointing to case precedent, Douglas County argues that this provision of some specialized benefit must be delinked from any provision of meaningful access to grade achievement. See id. at 22. Because stare decisis requires adherence to Rowley, Douglas County argues that the provision of some educational benefit must hold, and that a more than de minimis benefit sufficiently encapsulates the Rowley rule. See id. at 22.
Endrew argues that the purpose of a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) is to provide a child with disabilities the equal opportunity as that afforded to children without disabilities, to achieve academic success, give back to society, and become self-sufficient. See Brief for Petitioner at 40. In interpreting the text, purpose, and structure of the IDEA, Endrew contends that IDEA’s FAPE requirement obliges schools to provide children with disabilities with “substantially equal opportunity,” and furthermore, that this provision of equal opportunity is workable. See id. at 40, 43. Looking to the IDEA’s text and purpose, Endrew claims that an “appropriate” education ensures equal opportunity without demanding strict equality and that the IDEA’s provisions that implement the FAPE requirement also dictate this standard. See id. at 42. Furthermore, Endrew asserts that this equality standard is attainable, flexible, and aligns with the Department of Education’s Education (“DOE”) Program. See id. at 43–47. Endrew points to the DOE’s regulations explaining that a school must adapt its instruction to ensure that a child can meet educational standards that “apply to all children” as evidence that the substantially equal opportunity standard is workable. See id. at 46. In addition, Edward claims that the substantially equal opportunity standard has flexibility necessary to be administered effectively, further justifying an IEP requirement that is reasonably calculated to provide a child with a disability a substantially equal chance of academic success. See id. at 47, 50.
Douglas County argues that FAPE requirements must not be met through substantive provisions, such as equal opportunity and individualized treatment, but by both schools complying with the procedures set forth in the IDEA, and ensuring that the IEP is reasonably calculated to enable a child to receive benefits. See Brief for Respondent at 16,17. Douglas County contends that Rowley rejected the idea that FAPE requirements be based on equal opportunity. See id. at 18. Douglas County turns to the text of the Rowley to identify a provision that states are not required to maximize the potential of each child with a disability commensurate with the opportunity provided a child without one. See id. In addition, Douglas County argues that Endrew’s proposed standards are unworkable. See id. at 51. They argue that the standards’ vagueness, along with their imposition of confusing and onerous legal requirements, make them ill-suited. See id. at 52. For instance, Douglas County questions how a state can be tasked with interpreting whether progress promised by an IEP is significant or appropriate in light of each individual’s particular needs. See id. at 52–53. In addition, Douglas County argues that evaluating the IEP’s enforcement mechanisms is a difficult task that should not be left to a court with limited expertise in the field of education. See id. at 56. Douglas County acknowledged that there will be many borderline cases under the de minimis standard, as with any standard, but claims that these cases can be resolved best by commonsense judgments without delving into tough questions of educational policy. See id. at 59.
The United States, supporting Endrew, contends that the Supreme Court has held the FAPE requirement the “most fundamental” to IDEA and that questions about how the FAPE can be satisfied arises frequently in litigation and in everyday decisions by schools. See Brief of Amicus Curiae United States, in Support of Petitioner at 19. The United States argues that conflicting standards can only be resolved by the Supreme Court to ensure that children with varying levels of disabilities get the same protection under federal law, regardless of where they live. See id. at 13. Indeed, the United States asserts that children with different abilities should receive individualized attention and benefits, which would be achievable only under the “meaningful” benefits standard. See id. at 20. 118 Members of Congress agree: Congress passed the FAPE requirements to ensure that children with disabilities would not only physically attend school, but receive full educational opportunities and make meaningful progress. See Brief of Amici Curiae 118 Members of Congress, in Support of Petitioner at 7, 10.
Douglas County argues that Congress has had many opportunities to modify the Rowley standard but has explicitly chosen not to, indicating that Congress “considers Rowley as settled law.” See Brief for Respondent, Douglas County School District RE-1 at 9–10. Additionally, Douglas County argues that because IDEA funding generally comes from state budgets, if a higher standard should be imposed, the decision to do so should be left to state legislatures. See id. at 28–29. The National Association of State Directors of Special Education ( “NASDSE”) maintains that when the IDEA was first passed in 1975 and standards set by Rowley in 1982, the law recognized that each individual had different wide range of abilities that schools would need to cater to. See Brief of Amicus Curiae National Association of State Directors of Special Education ("NASDSE"), in Support of Neither Party at 5. According to NASDSE, the law refused to specify any single level of benefits children would be entitled to precisely because of these differences. Id. As Congress revised the IDEA in the decades following, it steadily improved standards from a “baseline of inclusion” to “ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, and economic self-sufficiency” (in the 1997 Amendments) to having educators set high expectations and preparing students to the “maximum extent possible” to lead independent lives in 2004. Id. at 5–6. Thanks to these standards, says the NASDSE, a standard much more rigorous than the Rowley standard is already practiced daily in schools across the nation. Id. at 6.
ANALYZING THE “MERELY MORE THAN DE MINIMIS” STANDARD
The United States contends that states should provide meaningful educational benefits to children with disabilities, and not merely aim for some, or merely more than de minimis, progress. See Brief of United States at 13–14. A “merely more than de minimis” standard, the United States argues, is incompatible with the meaning of “appropriate” education in the context of a child’s potential and would clash with Congressional intent. See id. at 14. Indeed, 118 Members of Congress agree that a “merely more than de minimis” standard would make IDEA’s promises to students “illusory” and would frustrate Congressional intent. See Brief of 118 Members of Congress at 28–30. Former Officials of the U.S. Department of Education explain that students with disabilities have come a long way in setting high achievement goals and showing educational success; they attribute this to the FAPE standard that has steadily progressed since 1982, and argue that standards and expected outcomes must continue to advance and set higher goals for students. See Brief of Amici Curiae Former Officials of the U.S. Department of Education, in Support of Petitioner at 21.
NASDSE believes that a child should receive more than just-above-trivial educational benefits from public schools, but that standard (more meaningful than just-above-trivial) is actually already the norm today. See Brief of NASDSE at 6. Similarly, Douglas County contends that the alleged circuit split in standard-setting argued forth by Endrew is merely a difference in word choice; all circuits employ the same standard set forth by Rowley but merely use different adjectives to describe those standards. See Brief for Respondent at 10–25.
- John Aguilar, U.S. Supreme Court will Hear Douglas County Student with Disabilities Case, The Denver Post (September 29, 2016)
- Greg Stohr, Disabled Students' Rights Draw U.S. Supreme Court Scrutiny, Bloomberg (September 29, 2016)
- Christina A. Samuels, Level of Benefits at Issue in Special Ed. Case, Education Week (October 11, 2016)