Client Alert: U.S. Supreme Court May Decide What Level of Educational Benefit Schools Must Provide to Students with Disabilities

June 7, 2016

The question could be an essay prompt in a high school English class: What is the difference between the adjectives “some” and “meaningful”? Last week, in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, the U.S. Supreme Court indicated it may weigh in on this question as it relates to the level of educational benefit public schools must offer students with disabilities. If the Supreme Court decides to review the Endrew F. case, the decision would clarify how schools must design individualized education programs (IEPs) and how they evaluate progress under those IEPs.

The Endrew F. caseinvolves a student with autism. The student’s parents placed him in a private school after six years at a Colorado school district, and they then sued the school district for reimbursement for the cost of the private school. The parents argued that although their son had made some academic and social/emotional progress at the school district, he had not made meaningful progress. They claimed that his behaviors had worsened over the years and that the educational benefits he had received were only trivial.

After the due process hearing, the hearing officer held that although it was a close case, the IEPs that the school district had designed and implemented were designed to—and did—confer “some” educational benefit to the student. The hearing officer therefore denied the parents’ reimbursement request. That decision was affirmed on appeal by the federal district court and by the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals. The parents have now asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision, and specifically to decide what “level of educational benefit school districts must confer on children with disabilities to provide them with the free appropriate public education guaranteed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.”

Although we will not know if the Supreme Court will take the Endrew F. case until sometime in the fall, the Supreme Court seems interested in the case and issue. Last week, the Court requested that the U.S. Solicitor General provide its thoughts about the case, a request that significantly raises the potential for the Supreme Court to hear the case.

In the meantime, the controlling standard for Arizona continues to be that schools must create and implement IEPs designed to confer some educational benefit on students. This benefit must be more than trivial, but the IEP does not have to maximize a student’s potential.

Osborn Maledon’s Education Law Practice team will keep you updated on the Supreme Court’s decision to take the case or let the Tenth Circuit’s decision stand.