Academic journal article Northwestern University Law Review

Is That Appropriate?: Clarifying the Idea's Free Appropriate Public Education Standard Post-Endrew F

Academic journal article Northwestern University Law Review

Is That Appropriate?: Clarifying the Idea's Free Appropriate Public Education Standard Post-Endrew F

Article excerpt


In the 2015-2016 school year, 6.7 million public school students between the ages of three and twenty-one-representing 13% of all public school students in the country-received special education services.1 one of these students was Endrew F., a fifth-grade boy who was diagnosed with autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) as a child. Because of his disabilities, Endrew had problems communicating personal needs and emotions, interacting with others in social routines and play, and coping with his severe fears of everyday stimuli-such as flies, spills, and public restrooms. Endrew also had compulsive and disruptive behaviors that surfaced in class, including loud vocalizations, the continuous repetition of words and phrases, climbing over furniture and other students, and even fleeing the classroom at inappropriate times. All of these obstacles made it difficult for Endrew to access education within the traditional public school setting.

Endrew's school attempted to respond to these issues by providing him with additional educational support and formulating goals designed specifically for him. Despite this extra assistance, however, Endrew still struggled to meet his individualized goals and make the appropriate amount of academic and social progress for a student of his age.2 While Endrew's circumstances unfortunately mirror those of many similarly situated students, his case is particularly notable because it served as the backdrop for the most recent decision in special education law-a decision that will likely have a significant impact on students, teachers, and administrators in the years to come.

Children with disabilities receive special education services in part because of the procedures outlined in the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1990 (IDEA).3 The IDEA mandates that all students with disabilities receive a free appropriate public education (FAPE),4 which requires school districts to provide each qualifying child with an individualized education program (IEP) and any accompanying services that the school deems appropriate.5 However, despite the enactment of federal legislation attempting to address these issues and the development of programs intended to help facilitate student development, children like Endrew continue to be neglected. This raises the question: How can school districts better ensure that students with disabilities receive a proper education?

Although the IDEA establishes strict and uniform procedures for developing an IEP,6 it does not address how substantively challenging the IEP must be for students with disabilities. As a result, courts have attempted to fill in the gaps regarding how much substantive educational benefit students must achieve through their IEP to satisfy the requirements of a FAPE.7 Prior to the Court's ruling in Endrew F., the primary Supreme Court case addressing this issue was Board of Education v. Rowley8-a case that was widely considered to be precedent regarding the educational rights of children with disabilities for over thirty years.9 According to Rowley, if a student's IEP explained an educational program that was "reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits," then the FAPE requirement was satisfied.10

However, the Court's decision in Rowley yielded two divergent interpretations. Expounding on the "reasonably calculated" standard, the Court indicated that Congress meant for an IEP to require schools to confer "some educational benefit,"11 yet the Court also stated that school districts must confer a "meaningful" benefit to students through their individualized curricula.12 Circuit courts that followed the "some educational benefit" interpretation acknowledged that an IEP does not need to guarantee the maximization of a child's potential but instead needs only to provide a benefit that is merely more than de minimis.13 In contrast, the circuits that followed the "meaningful educational benefit" interpretation argued that Congress designed the IDEA to confer more than a trivial benefit to students with disabilities. …

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