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Advisory on Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District RE-1, 2017 U.S. Supreme Court Decision of Special Education

To:Superintendents of Schools, Special Education Administrators, Charter School Leaders and Other Interested Parties
From:Mitchell D. Chester, Ed.D., Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education
Date:June 16, 2017

On March 22, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court issued its unanimous decision in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District RE-1, 580 U.S. __, No. 15-827 (Mar. 22, 2017). The decision, written by Chief Justice Roberts, addresses the standard that school districts must meet in providing Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) to students with disabilities under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The Supreme Court held: "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." Endrew F., slip op. at 11 (emphasis added). The Court rejected the less demanding standard - "merely more than de minimis" educational benefit - that the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit had applied in this case, which arose in Colorado. Id. at 14.

Our legal staff has written this advisory to inform you about the Supreme Court's decision.

The Endrew F. decision is particularly significant in states where the courts, such as the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, had adopted a minimalist legal standard for educational benefit under the IDEA. In contrast, the First Circuit Court of Appeals (the federal appellate court for Massachusetts) has applied a legal standard under IDEA closer to the standard now set forth by the Supreme Court. For example, in a 2012 Massachusetts case, the First Circuit stated that "to comply with the IDEA, an IEP must be reasonably calculated to confer a meaningful educational benefit." D.B. v. Esposito, 675 F. 3d 26, 34 (1st Cir. 2012). Consequently, the Supreme Court's ruling in Endrew F. should not be a major shift for special education law in Massachusetts. Even so, the decision has national significance; it sets a legal standard that will be followed in all jurisdictions. Moreover, the decision is an important reminder to all school districts about the duty to provide for every student in special education an IEP that is "appropriately ambitious" in light of the student's circumstances and to give every student with disabilities "the chance to meet challenging objectives." Endrew F., slip op. at 14.

Facts and Procedural History of the Case

Endrew F. is a student with autism. Id. at 6. From preschool through fourth grade, he attended school in the Douglas County (Colorado) School District and received annual IEPs from the district addressing his educational and functional needs. Id. By his fourth grade year, he was exhibiting serious behavioral issues in school and his parents believed his academic and functional progress had stalled. Id. at 6-7. When the school district proposed a fifth grade IEP similar to the previous ones, Endrew's parents removed him from public school and enrolled him in a private school that specializes in educating children with autism. Id. at 7. As the Supreme Court stated, "[w]ithin months, Endrew's behavior improved significantly, permitting him to make a degree of academic progress that had eluded him in public school." Id.

Endrew's parents sought reimbursement from the school district for his tuition at the private special education school by filing a complaint under the IDEA with the Colorado Department of Education.1 Id. The Colorado state administrative law judge denied the parents' claim and ruled in favor of the school district. Id. at 8. The U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado affirmed that determination, as did the Tenth Circuit. Id. The Tenth Circuit interpreted the Supreme Court's 1982 Rowley decision (see below) to mean "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'" - and on that basis, concluded that the school district's proposed IEP for Endrew met the legal standard because the IEP was "reasonably calculated to enable him to make some progress." Id. The parents then appealed to the Supreme Court, which articulated the new legal standard, vacated the decision of the Tenth Circuit, and remanded the case to the lower court for further proceedings consistent with its decision. Id. at 9, 15-16.

The Legal Standard

The IDEA requires schools to provide a "free appropriate public education" (FAPE) to all eligible students with disabilities. The Supreme Court first addressed the FAPE requirement in Board of Education of Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley, 458 U. S. 176 (1982). In the Rowley decision, the Supreme Court held that the IDEA guarantees a substantively adequate program of education to all eligible children, and that this requirement is satisfied if the child's IEP sets out an educational program that is "reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits." Id. at 207. For children fully integrated in the regular classroom, this would typically require an IEP "reasonably calculated to enable the child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade." Id. at 204.

Rowley involved a student with a significant hearing impairment who was progressing successfully in her regular education classroom with specialized instruction and support services per her IEP. Her parents challenged the adequacy of her IEP, seeking to add services of a sign-language interpreter in all of her classes. Based on the student's excellent progress and the array of specialized instruction and services offered in her IEP, the Supreme Court ruled for the school district, concluding that her program met the substantive legal standard for FAPE as set forth above.2 The Court confined its analysis to the facts of the case presented, and declined "to establish any one test for determining the adequacy of educational benefits conferred upon all children covered by the Act." Id. at 202.

In Endrew F., the Supreme Court noted that the Rowley decision did not provide concrete guidance as to the IEP for a student such as Endrew who is not fully integrated in the regular classroom and is not able to achieve on grade level. The IDEA requires that whenever possible, students with disabilities be educated in the regular classroom setting with the goal of enabling them to advance through the general education curriculum. The Court stated:

If that is not a reasonable prospect for a child, his IEP need not aim for grade-level advancement. But his educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances, just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most children in the regular classroom. The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.

Of course this describes a general standard, not a formula. But whatever else can be said about it, this standard is markedly more demanding than the "merely more than de minimis" test applied by the Tenth Circuit. It cannot be the case that the Act [IDEA] typically aims for grade-level advancement for children with disabilities who can be educated in the regular classroom, but is satisfied with barely more than de minimis progress for those who cannot.

Endrew F., slip op. at 14 (emphasis added).

Having overruled the minimalist standard that had been advocated by the district and adopted by the Tenth Circuit, the Supreme Court also declined to endorse the legal standard advocated by Endrew's parents, which would have required schools to provide children with disabilities educational opportunities that are "substantially equal to the opportunities afforded children without disabilities." Id. at 15 (quoting Petr.'s Brief at 40). The Supreme Court noted that such a standard would be at odds with its analysis in the Rowley case. Rather, the Court found a middle ground, holding that the IDEA "requires an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child's circumstances." Id. at 14-15 (emphasis added). Of equal significance, the Court stated that as a matter of federal law, the educational program for a student with disabilities must be "appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances" and that every student should have "the chance to meet challenging objectives." Id. at 14.

Guidance from the Decision

The IDEA calls for a collaborative process through which the student's IEP Team, which includes teachers, school officials, and the student's parents or guardians, develops an IEP for each eligible student with disabilities. In Endrew F., the Supreme Court reaffirmed the central role of the IEP Team and offered these observations about the "fact-intensive exercise" of creating an IEP that is "tailored to the unique needs of a particular child" and is "reasonably calculated to enable the child to make progress appropriate in light of the child's circumstances:"

The 'reasonably calculated' qualification reflects a recognition that crafting an appropriate program of education requires a prospective judgment by school officials. Id., at 207. The Act contemplates that this fact-intensive exercise will be informed not only by the expertise of school officials, but also by the input of the child's parents or guardians. Id., at 208-209. Any review of an IEP must appreciate that the question is whether the IEP is reasonable, not whether the court regards it as ideal. Id., at 206-207.

Id. at 11 (citing Rowley, 458 U.S. at 206-09, emphasis by the Court).

While the IEP must aim to enable the child to make progress, the legal standard that the Court established is not a "bright-line" formula. Individualization is central to special education (hence the "I" in IDEA and IEP), and whether an IEP meets the legal standard will depend on the facts of the particular case. Our state regulations3 provide helpful context, calling for the IEP to be "designed to enable the student to progress effectively in the content areas of the general curriculum." 603 CMR 28.05(4)(b). Further, the regulations define "progress effectively in the general education program" as follows: "to make documented growth in the acquisition of knowledge and skills, including social/emotional development, within the general education program, with or without accommodations, according to chronological age and developmental expectations, the individual educational potential of the student, and the learning standards set forth in the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks and the curriculum of the district." 603 CMR 28.02(17).

The Court concluded its opinion as follows:

We will not attempt to elaborate on what 'appropriate' progress will look like from case to case. It is in the nature of the Act and the standard we adopt to resist such an effort: The adequacy of a given IEP turns on the unique circumstances of the child for whom it was created. This absence of a bright-line rule, however, 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 which they review.' Rowley, 458 U. S., at 206.

At the same time, deference is based on the application of expertise and the exercise of judgment by school authorities. The Act vests these officials with responsibility for decisions of critical importance to the life of a disabled child. The nature of the IEP process, from the initial consultation through state administrative proceedings, ensures that parents and school representatives will fully air their respective opinions on the degree of progress a child's IEP should pursue. See §§1414, 1415; Id., at 208-209. By the time any dispute reaches court, school authorities will have had a complete opportunity to bring their expertise and judgment to bear on areas of disagreement. A reviewing court may fairly expect those authorities to be able to offer a cogent and responsive explanation for their decisions that shows the IEP is reasonably calculated to enable the child to make progress appropriate in light of his circumstances.

Id. at 15-16 (emphasis added).

In short, the Court acknowledged the importance of the educational expertise and professional judgment that school authorities bring to the process of developing an IEP that is reasonably calculated to enable the child to make progress appropriate in light of the child's circumstances, and the important role of the child's parents/guardians in that collaborative process. School authorities should be able to offer a "cogent and responsive explanation for their decisions that shows the IEP is reasonably calculated to enable the child to make progress appropriate in light of his circumstances." Id. at 16.

The federal principles set forth in the Endrew F. decision are in accord with our state education standards. Indeed, the Court's statement that every student with disabilities is entitled to an educational program that is "appropriately ambitious" in light of the student's circumstances and that provides "the chance to meet challenging objectives" is entirely consistent with the mission of public education in Massachusetts and our goal of preparing all students, including students with disabilities, for success after high school. Because our state standards are in harmony with the standard in Endrew F., the decision should not be a major shift for special education law in Massachusetts.4

The Department of Elementary and Secondary Education will continue to support school districts in the Commonwealth in providing a high quality education to each and every student. If you have questions about the Endrew F. decision and how the legal standard might apply to a particular case, please consult with your legal counsel.

1 In Massachusetts, parents would file with the Bureau of Special Education Appeals at the Division of Administrative Law Appeals.

2 In Endrew F., the Supreme Court noted: "We declined to hold in Rowley, and do not hold today, that every handicapped child who is advancing from grade to grade … is automatically receiving a FAPE." Id. at 14, n. 2 (internal quotations and punctuation omitted).

3 In defining free appropriate public education (FAPE), the Massachusetts special education statute refers to both federal and state education standards: "special education and related services as consistent with the provisions set forth in 20 U.S.C. 1400 et seq., its accompanying regulations, and which meet the education standards established by statute or established by regulations promulgated by the board of [elementary and secondary] education." M.G.L. chapter 71B, section 1.

4 For more information, see the United States Department of Education's "Questions and Answers (Q&A) on U.S. Supreme Court Case Decision Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District Re-1" issued on December 7, 2017.

Last Updated: June 22, 2017

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