When developing and implementing IEPs for special needs students, special educators have been guided for more than three decades by what is called the Rowley standard. Rowley has been the measuring stick by which courts determine if a public school has met the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s requirement to provide a free, appropriate public education (“FAPE”) to a disabled student. The Rowley standard, which was first articulated by the Supreme Court in a landmark decision in 1982, states that a public school must develop and implement IEPs that are “reasonably calculated to result in educational benefit.” However, this past March the Supreme Court revisited the Rowley standard in a much-anticipated decision—Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District.
Many experts anticipated that the Endrew decision would be a seismic shift and that Rowley would no longer serve as the yardstick for public school compliance under the IDEA. However, it appears that Endrew—rather than replace Rowley—only provided further clarification for the FAPE standard. In other words, Rowley continues to reflect the law of the land.
In Endrew, the Court was asked to decide whether a public school’s educational program, which only afforded a student “minimal progress,” constituted a FAPE. The Court rejected a lower court’s holding that an IEP need only provide “more than de minimis progress.” At the same time, it rejected the position of the parents that an IEP must provide “educational opportunities to children with disabilities that are ‘substantially equal to the opportunities afforded to children without disabilities.’” Instead, the Court fully embraced its prior holding in Rowley, while providing further clarity to long-standing precedent. Consistent with the holding in Rowley, the Court stated that an IEP should be “reasonably calculated to enable the child to make progress appropriate in light of his circumstances.” Importantly, the Court acknowledged that the progress expected for a given child will vary greatly as a result of each child’s unique circumstance. In other words, the severity of a child’s disability and the child’s unique circumstances must be taken into consideration when determining if the District offered an “appropriately ambitious” IEP. In addition, the Court’s decision clearly recognizes that a school’s compliance with the FAPE standard should not be analyzed from a retrospective viewpoint (i.e., the fact that a student did not meet expected outcomes does not indicate a denial of FAPE). Instead, the IEP that is designed and implemented need only be “reasonably calculated” to result in educational benefit at the time it was developed.
As is the case with any Supreme Court decision, the impact and meaning of the Endrew decision will be debated by attorneys for years to come. However, for schools and special educators who are committed to the success of disabled students, the decision is far from a game-changer. •
This article is intended to provide general information with commentary. It should not be relied upon as legal advice. If required, legal advice regarding this topic should be obtained from district legal counsel.
Tim Palmatier and Adam Wattenbarger are education law attorneys with the law firm of Kennedy & Graven, Chartered. For more information, please contact them at (612) 337-9300 or www.kennedy-graven.com.
© Tim R. Palmatier and Adam C. Wattenbarger (2017). Used by permission.