Academic journal article Journal of Law and Education

Board of Education of Hendrick Hudson V. Rowley: An Examination of Its Precedential Impact

Academic journal article Journal of Law and Education

Board of Education of Hendrick Hudson V. Rowley: An Examination of Its Precedential Impact

Article excerpt

In 1982, the United States Supreme Court rendered its first decision construing the Education for All Handicapped Children's Act (EAHCA)1 in Board of Education v. Rowley.2 Twenty-six years later, although the law's name has changed to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA),3 Rowley stands firm as the primary precedent whenever the educational rights of children with disabilities are considered. That Rowley guides the construction of the IDEA is not terribly surprising; however, this landmark decision also provides precedent for other basic legal principles in the practice of education law. Accordingly, this paper examines the precedential impact of Rowley both as related to special education and to school law in general. Part I briefly reviews the decision itself and the opinions written by Justices Rehnquist, Blackmun and White. Part II reviews Rowley's impact on judicial construction of the IDEA. Part III examines Rowley's influence on other areas of school law and finally, Part IV discusses questions left open by Rowley, some of which remain unresolved today.


The facts presented to the Court in Rowley were rather straightforward.4 Amy Rowley, profoundly deaf since birth, attended a public school. When she was only in first grade, a dispute arose between parents and school officials.5 Although no one challenged her eligibility for special education and related services under the EAHCA, the school and parents disagreed about what services were necessary for Amy. Amy's parents, also deaf, argued that the school district should provide Amy a sign language interpreter in order to allow her to understand her teachers and classmates.6 School officials contended that the services she was already receiving were sufficient. Amy received speech and language therapy and the services of a teacher of the deaf in addition to the program available in the first grade classroom.7 The school also outfitted her with an FM amplification system.8 School officials argued that Amy was achieving passing marks with the programming provided and therefore, did not need additional services to succeed. The parents maintained that Amy's impairment was such that only a fraction of information was available to her through audition or speechreading, and thus, an interpreter was necessary to provide her learning opportunities comparable to that of non-disabled peers.

The parents filed an administrative complaint to contest the denial of the interpreter services. The hearing officer ruled in favor of the school district and the parents appealed. The federal district court ruled in the parents' favor and the second Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that ruling. The school district appealed to the United States Supreme Court.

The Court granted review and certified two questions: "What is meant by the Act's requirement of a 'free appropriate public education'? And what is the role of state and federal courts in exercising the review granted by [EAHCA]?"9

A. Majority Opinion

In response to these questions, Justice Rehnquist wrote for the Court's majority, which also included Chief Justice Burger and Justices Powell, Stevens, and O'Connor. To resolve the issue, Rehnquist first reviewed the Congressional history and legislative intent of the EAHCA.10 This history, noted Rehnquist, revealed that both houses of Congress enacted the law with the clear recognition that too many children with disabilities had been entirely excluded from the benefit of a public education.11 As such, Rehnquist concluded that the Congressional authors of EAHCA intended to remedy the pervasive problem of excluding children with special needs from public schools.

The majority's determination that Congressional intent focused on remedying the exclusion of children with disabilities formed the basis for the Court's reasoning as to what constituted a free appropriate public education (FAPE).12 The Court held that, because the Congress was predominantly concerned with breaking down barriers to access, they intended only to impose those substantive standards as would be necessary to make access to education meaningful. …

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