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AUDIO: The United States Supreme Court Wrestles With The Appropriate Standard For Educating Students With Disabilities

On January 11, 2017, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, No. 15-827, in which our Nation’s highest court is asked to answer the question: What level of educational benefit must school districts confer on children with disabilities in order to provide them with the free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) guaranteed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (“IDEA”)?

The audio of the oral arguments in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District is set forth below for your listening pleasure.


A quick primer for those who are not familiar with the IDEA, the IDEA is a federal statute that requires public schools receiving federal funds for special education services to provide each child with a disability with FAPE. The key mechanism by which schools meet this requirement is through an individualized education program (“IEP”) that is tailored to the unique needs of each child with a disability.

In a landmark decision, the United States Supreme Court found that each IEP must be “reasonably calculated” to confer an educational benefit on the child in order to meet the requirement that the school district provide FAPE. Bd. of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (1982). However, the United States Supreme Court declined to actually explain what that level of benefit should actually be. Over the last thirty years, federal appellate courts have struggled to answer this particular question, coming up with vastly different answers. For example, the Sixth Circuit, the federal appellate circuit which includes Ohio, requires that schools confer a meaningful educational benefit. See Deal v. Hamilton Cty. Bd. of Educ., 392 F.3d 840, 862-63 (6th Cir. 2004). Other federal appellate courts adhere to different standards.

Douglas is particularly instructive regarding this split among appellate courts. The student in Douglas was diagnosed with autism. Beginning in the second grade, he developed severe behavioral problems that interfered with his ability to learn, including head banging, yelling, and screaming. On two occasions he ran away from school and became so agitated that he took his clothing off. When the student made minimal progress towards his IEP goals, the parents removed him from the public school and filed a due process complaint seeking tuition reimbursement. In contrast to the standard adopted by the Sixth Circuit, the federal appellate court in Douglas found that the IEP need only be reasonably calculated to guarantee some educational benefit that is more than de minimis.

According to Scotus Blog, the Justices appeared dissatisfied during oral arguments with a standard that allows school districts to satisfy the FAPE requirement so long as they offer an educational program that provides a de minimis educational benefit. The Scotus Blog can be accessed here. However, the Justices struggled to articulate what the appropriate standard might actually be. If you are a betting person, Scotus Blog predicts that the standard proposed by the federal government – which would require school districts to offer a program “aimed at significant educational progress in light of the child’s circumstances” – seems to be the most likely replacement. Again, the Scotus Blog can be accessed here.

The concern for school officials is that this standard will require courts to get mired in educational policy disputes over which they have no expertise. Moreover, a higher FAPE standard would likely impose significant additional costs on school districts by requiring them to provide numerous additional services. A decision in the case is expected by the summer of 2017.

To read the briefs in this case, please click here.

Authors: Matthew John Markling and Patrick Vrobel

Note: This blog entry does not constitute – nor does it contain – legal advice. Legal jurisprudence is like the always changing Midwestern weather. As a result, this single blog entry cannot substitute for consultation with a McGown & Markling attorney. If legal advice is needed with respect to a specific factual situation, please feel free to contact a McGown & Markling attorney.

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