Supreme Court expands definition of FAPE
(District of Columbia) In a carefully-worded but unanimous opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled Wednesday that the right of students with disabilities to a “free appropriate public education” requires more than a simple compliance “check list” from schools.
Writing for the court, Chief Justice John Roberts appeared to defer to many elements of a 1982 decision by the high court on a similar question, but took aim on misinterpretations of that ruling by lower courts in more recent cases.
Ironically, the ruling that the high court reversed Wednesday came from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeal—which included Judge Neil Gorsuch, President Trump’s nominee to join the U.S. Supreme Court.
While much of the attention has been focused on the politics of the ruling, which came the same day as Gorsuch’s nomination hearing, the ruling is an important one for schools, parents and SWDs.
Under the prior standard of service, many district administrators were under the impression that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act didn’t define what level of service satisfies concept of an “appropriate” education. Further, under the existing interpretation of the 1982 ruling, the lower courts had broadly established that individual education plans, known as IEPs, only need to give “some educational benefit,” or a “basic floor of opportunity.”
Not so, said Chief Justice Roberts.
“It cannot be the case that the Act (IDEA) typically aims for grade level advancement for children with disabilities who can be educated in the regular classroom, but is satisfied with barely more than de minimis progress for those who cannot.
“When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing ‘merely more than de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all,” the justice wrote.
And in quoting a passage from IDEA itself, he added: “For children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to ‘sitting idly . . . awaiting the time when they were old enough to ‘drop out.’”
Roberts acknowledged that the 1982 Rowley decision did not try to establish “an overarching standard to evaluate the adequacy” of what services needed to be provided. But, he said, Rowley as well as IDEA itself gave some direction to schools:
“To meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances,” he said.
At issue is the level of service a school district in the Colorado Springs area needed to offer to a teenage boy diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism.
After struggling within the public school system, the parents moved their son to a specialized private school where he performed much better. The parents then sought reimbursement for the private school tuition from the Douglas County School District.
Largely guided by the predominate understanding of the Rowley decision, the parents lost at the trial level and again on appeal to the 10th Circuit.
Roberts seemed to take care not to directly criticize the 10th Circuit ruling, although marked in several places strong disagreement with the lower court’s assessment that under Rowley, a child’s IEP is adequate as long as it provides some “ educational benefit [that is] merely . . . more than de minimis.”
Later, Roberts more directly challenged that notion by rejecting arguments from the school district that IDEA only requires only “procedural requirements—a checklist of items” that must be addressed.
“But the procedures are there for a reason,” Roberts argued. “And their focus provides insight into what it means, for purposes of the FAPE definition, to ‘meet the unique needs’ of a child with a disability.”
In a remarkable confluence of events, the Robert’s opinion was released while the Senate Judiciary Committee was engaged in day two of the Gorsuch confirmation hearing. And indeed, the Colorado judge was asked about the reversal of his opinion.
Gorsuch said at the time of the ruling, he believed the precedent had already been established.
“If anyone suggests I like an outcome where an autistic child happens to lose, that is a heartbreaking outcome to me,” Gorsuch said. “But the fact remains that I was bound by circuit precedent.”