Raising the Bar the Quality of Special Education Required Under the IDEA, 1117 SCBJ, SC Lawyer, November 2017, #45

AuthorMary Willis, J.

Raising the Bar The Quality of Special Education Required Under the IDEA

Vol. 29 Issue 3 Pg. 45

South Carolina Bar Journal

November, 2017

Mary Willis, J.


The Individuals with Disabilities Act (the "IDEA" or the "Act"), enacted in 1975, is the broad federal law creating extensive procedural and substantive rights for children with disabilities and their parents across the nation.1 The law currently provides special education services to approximately 6.7 million school-aged children with disabilities.2 Prior to its enactment, public schools were not required to educate students with disabilities at all, and the vast majority of disabled children were kept out of school entirely or largely segregated from their non-disabled peers. Congress passed the IDEA3 to preserve the rights of all children with special education needs to a free appropriate public education (FAPE)4 in the least restrictive environment. The fundamental goal of the IDEA is to "foster self-sufficiency and independence among students with disabilities"5 by providing each disabled student with the services needed to "further [his or her] education, employment, and independent living."6 While the IDEA guarantees access to public school and entitles students with disabilities to special education services, the statutory text fails to establish any substantive criteria by which the adequacy of those services can be measured. As such, since the Act was enacted over 40 years ago, the quality of special education services provided has varied depending on where a child lives, with a number of jurisdictions interpreting the Act to require school districts only show that it "conferred some educational benefit" or provided a "merely more than de minimis" or "just above trivial" education.7

At its most basic, the objective of the IDEA is to level the educational playing field between students with disabilities and their non-disabled peers. Despite this objective, the failure to provide substantive guidance as to the adequacy of services required has resulted in failure to provide a meaningful education to millions of students with disabilities across the nation. In March 2017, for the first time since its decision 35 years ago in Board of Education v. Rowley,8 the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously addressed the adequacy of special education and related services a school district must provide, and it created the following standard to be applied uniformly across the nation: to meet its substantive obligations under the IDEA, a school must offer an Individualized Education Program (IEP) reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child's circumstances.9

IDEA basics

To comply with the IDEA, school districts receiving federal funds must satisfy the procedural requirements of the Act and provide an "appropriate" education through the implementation of an IEP.10 Because every student's disability varies, what will work for one student may not work for another. As such, an IEP is a blueprint created for each disabled student, designed to meet that child's individual needs.11 It is a collaborative effort, created by, among others, the student's parents, school district officials, teachers and other professionals, as appropriate.12 Among other provisions, an IEP must include a specific statement of the child's current performance levels, the child's short-term and long-term goals, the educational and other services to be provided, and criteria for evaluating the child's progress.13 When developing an IEP, the IEP team must consider "(i) the strengths of the child; (ii) the concerns of the parents for enhancing the education of their child; (iii) the results of the initial evaluation or most recent evaluation of the child; and (iv) the academic, developmental, and functional needs of the child."14 Once an IEP has been established, it must be reviewed annually and altered depending on the child's progress.15 As would be expected, the Act's failure to provide any substantive criteria by which to assess the adequacy of services has resulted in disagreements between parents of disabled students and school districts regarding the quality of special education, which has, in turn, brought about numerous lawsuits and the creation of varying standards across the nation.

The past

The Supreme Court first addressed the FAPE requirement in Board of Education v. Rowley, where it held that the IDEA guarantees a substantively adequate program of education to all eligible students, and the requirement is satisfied if the student's IEP "is reasonably calculated to confer an educational benefit."16 In Rowley, the parents of a deaf student brought a lawsuit against their school district arguing the student had been denied a FAPE because the school district would not provide her with a sign language interpreter.17 The lower courts found in favor of the parents, holding that the student was not provided with a FAPE because, despite advancing from grade to grade, she was not doing as well as she could have been had an interpreter been provided.18 The Rowley Court rejected the lower courts' interpretation and held a school district provides a FAPE when the IEP is reasonably calculated "to enable [a] child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade."19 In sum, the Rowley Court determined the FAPE requirement merely provides "a basic floor of opportunity" that levels the playing field between disabled students and their non-disabled peers but held a school district is not required to maximize a disabled student's potential.[20]

Following the Rowley decision and its failure to clarify the meaning of "appropriate," federal courts took on the task of developing the standard for interpreting the meaning of a FAPE. Some courts interpreted the Supreme Court's language to limit what is owed to a student with disabilities adopting some version of the "merely more than de minimis" or the "just above trivial" standard,21 whereas other courts created a heightened "meaningful benefit" standard.22 The Fourth Circuit was among those circuits to limit what was required under the Act and if a school district within the Fourth Circuit could prove some benefit, even if it was just above trivial, students with disabilities, and their parents were left without recourse.23

The EndrewF. decision

The Supreme Court's ruling in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District was a long awaited decision for the special education community, and it will have a far-reaching impact...

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