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Many Special Education Students Will Benefit from Recently Changed Requirements for Individual Education Plans May 27, 2017

Downtown Boston, Boston
Many Special Education Students Will Benefit from Recently Changed Requirements for Individual Education Plans, Boston, Massachusetts

There is good news for children with special needs.  On March 22, 2017, the Supreme Court of the United States clarified the minimally acceptable quality of Individualized Education Programs (IEPs), and, in many areas of the country, these clarifications will raise the quality standards that apply to your child’s IEP.  All IEPs must now be “reasonably calculated to allow a child to make appropriate progress in light of the child’s circumstances.”  Check in with our website to keep up with how this case is interpreted by courts in Massachusetts.

The case was Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District.  Endrew F. is an autistic boy living in Colorado who attended the Douglas County School District from preschool to fourth grade.  His parents grew concerned that Endrew was not making adequate progress, so, after they were presented with an IEP that they considered to be substantially similar to those that applied in prior years, they placed Endrew in a private school and requested tuition reimbursement.  This request was denied by the Colorado Department of Education, and again in the federal district court.

The parents then challenged these decisions in the Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit, which controls Colorado.  The Tenth Circuit court then interpreted a 1982 case named Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley, where the Supreme Court established that all IEPs must be reasonably calculated to enable the student to receive educational benefits.  Courts of Appeal in eleven circuits had interpreted the Rowley rule, but with different and often divergent results.  The Tenth Circuit had interpreted the rule to mean that the IEP need only be reasonably calculated to confer more than minimal educational benefits.  It confirmed and applied that interpretation to Endrew F., and concluded that it was sufficient for the school district to provide Endrew with an IEP that was “reasonably calculated” to confer “some” minimal educational benefit.

The Supreme Court agreed to hear the case in order to resolve the differing interpretations of the Rowley case.  It rejected the Tenth Circuit standard, and, after deliberating the issue, the Supreme Court now required that “the progress contemplated by the IEP must be appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”  The Supreme Court “vacated” the Tenth Circuit opinion, which made it invalid legally, and made clear that special educational programs must now be “appropriately ambitious.”

This new standard is a win for the special needs community.  And parents of special needs children will be helped by the Endrew F. case in other ways.  In the past, for example, parents carried the burden of proving that the school district failed to provide an IEP that conferred even minimal educational progress to their child.  In Endrew F., the Supreme Court stated that school districts should share that burden.  It stated that courts may now “fairly expect” school districts 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.”

Parents of children without significant cognitive deficits are also aided by the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Rowley decision, which was brought on behalf Amy Rowley, a deaf girl who was performing better than average academically.  The Supreme Court recognized that “the benefits available at one end of the spectrum will differ dramatically from those obtainable by children at the other end.”  It clarified that, “for children receiving instruction in the regular classroom this would generally require an IEP reasonably calculated to enable the child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade.”  In other words, if your child is substantially mainstreamed, the Endrew F. decision supports the proposition that your child’s IEP should be designed to produce real academic progress, which is comparable to that of their fully mainstreamed peers.

But this decision may not be entirely positive for your child.  If, for example, a child has significant cognitive deficits, then school districts may use the new standard to argue that, for those IEPs, even minimal educational advances may constitute “appropriate progress in light of the child’s circumstances.” 

Look to how your local federal court interprets Endrew F. to verify how these new standards will apply to your child’s IEP.  Or just contact us or call at (617) 963-3599.  We would be happy to talk with you.