On March 22, 2017, the United States Supreme Court decided Endrew v. Douglas County School District, No. 15-827, holding that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires participating schools to offer an individualized education program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.
The IDEA provides states with federal funds to assist in educating children with disabilities. Schools that accept the funds must provide every eligible child a “free appropriate public education” by means of a uniquely tailored “individualized education program,” or IEP. 20 U.S.C. §§ 1401(9)(D), 1412(a)(1).
Petitioner Endrew F., a child with autism, received annual IEPs through a school in the Douglas County School District. By fourth grade, Endrew’s parents believed his academic and functional progress had stalled. When the school district proposed a fifth grade IEP that resembled those from past years, Endrew’s parents removed him from public school and enrolled him in a private school specializing in educating children with autism, where Endrew made significant academic progress. Six months after Endrew started at the private school, his parents again met with representatives of the Douglas County School District, at which the District presented a new plan that did not differ meaningfully from the plan in Endrew’s fourth grade IEP.
Endrew’s parents filed a complaint with the Colorado Department of Education, seeking reimbursement for Endrew’s private school tuition. The Department denied their claim, and a federal district court and subsequently the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that determination. In its opinion, the Tenth Circuit interpreted the Supreme Court’s holding in Board of Ed. of Hendrick Hudson Central School Dist., Westchester Cty. v. Rowley to establish a rule that a child’s IEP is adequate as long as it is calculated to confer an “educational benefit [that is] merely . . . more than de minimis.” The Tenth Circuit concluded that Endrew’s IEP had been “reasonably calculated to enable [him] to make some progress,” thus constituting a “free appropriate public education” under the IDEA.
The Supreme Court reversed, holding that the essential function of an IEP is to set out a plan for pursuing the child’s academic and functional advancement. The Court found that its decision in Rowley declined “to establish any one test for determining the adequacy of educational benefits conferred upon all children covered by the Act.” Instead, the IDEA directs states to offer instruction “specially designed” to meet a child’s unique needs” through an “[i]ndividualized education program,” focusing necessarily on the particular child and his or her circumstances. As the Supreme Court’s Rowley decision previously illuminated, for a child fully integrated in the regular classroom, an IEP typically should be “reasonably calculated to enable the child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade.” 458 U.S. at 204. For children who do not have a reasonable prospect for grade-level advancement, the child’s educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his or her circumstances. This standard is markedly more demanding than the “merely more than de minimis” test applied by the Tenth Circuit.
The Court does not view the IDEA as requiring an “ideal” IEP, but rather a reasonable plan aiming to enable the child to make progress after the fact-intensive inquiry of the child’s present levels of achievement, disability and potential for growth.
The Court stated that its opinion should not be mistaken for an invitation to the courts to substitute their own notions of sound educational policy for those of the school authorities that they review. Instead, courts should grant school authorities some level of deference based on their expertise. However, the Court noted that the nature of the IEP dispute-resolution process ensures that parents and school representatives have fully aired their respective opinions by the time their dispute reaches a court, providing school authorities with a complete opportunity to bring their expertise and judgment to bear on areas of disagreement.
The Court declined to adopt the Endews’ argument that the IDEA goes even further and requires States to provide children with disabilities educational opportunities that are “substantially equal to the opportunities afforded children without disabilities.”
Chief Justice Roberts delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court.