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United States Supreme Court Issues First FAPE Opinion Since 1982

Donald DeNaultBy Donald P. DeNault, Jr.

On March 22, 2017, the United States Supreme Court issued its first opinion addressing the meaning of a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) since the Rowley opinion in 1982. 

In Rowley, the Court held that the IDEA does not require school districts to provide special education students the best education available, nor to provide instruction or services that maximize a student’s abilities.  Rather, schools are only required to provide a “basic floor of opportunity” that consists of access to specialized instruction and related services individually designed to provide educational benefit to the student.  In other words, the IDEA opens the public school doors to children with special needs, but is not a sweeping guarantee of any particular level of education once inside.

Defining an “appropriate” public education is usually at the core of most disputes between parents of a child with special needs and the child’s school district.  The long-awaited Endrew F. opinion, issued on March 22, 2017, held that, to meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an individualized education plan (IEP) that is “reasonably calculated to enable a 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.  The Court concluded that the IDEA 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.  Any review of an IEP must appreciate that the question is whether the IEP is reasonable, not whether the court regards it as ideal.  The Court firmly noted that the adequacy of an IEP “turns on the unique circumstances of the child for whom it was created.”

The new standard set by the Court will leave situation-specific analysis to the lower courts.  For example, the Court did not address how progress should be measured.  Instead, it merely indicated that individualized education plans for students should be crafted with “deference” to the expertise of school authorities and with the child’s particular needs at the forefront.  The Court also did not define the term “unique circumstances,” which was used by the Court in lieu of the term “disabilities,” suggesting a broader analysis will likely be necessary when crafting an IEP for that child.

Mr. DeNault has been a school law practitioner for more than 20 years, specializing in student discipline, FOIA, the Open Meetings Act, contracts, district boundary amendment proceedings, school board policies, school litigation, and most other school law matters.  School officials are always welcome to contact him regarding IDEA, FAPE, and any other school law matters.

Categories: Municipal

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