Supreme Court Defines Standard of Education to Be Provided in Special Education IEP’s Under the IDEA of 1990

Special Education IEP’s Under the IDEA of 1990
Written by Taher Kameli & Chathan Vemuri

On March 22, 2017, the United States Supreme Court reached a decision on what advocate\s have described as “the most significant special-education issue to reach the high court in three decades.”[1] The Supreme Court finally set out the standard by which a free appropriate public education (FAPE) could be defined under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act of 1990. In a landmark ruling, Endrew F. v. Douglas Cnty. Sch. Dist. RE-1, the Supreme Court ruled that in order “[t]o meet its substantial obligation under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a school must offer an individualized education program (IEP) reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”[2] This ruling is extremely important in light of the rather vague requirements Congress imposed upon the drafting of IEPs under the IDEA.[3]

There has been an ambiguity with regard to what constitutes a proper level of education for a disabled student under the IDEA of 1990.[4] The Federal Circuit Appellate Courts have been divided in how to interpret the standard of a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) under the IDEA, with conflicting rulings coming from different circuits.[5] Here, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, after hearing the case about how parents of an autistic child filed suit against the school district for reimbursement after failing to give him a proper education under the IDEA, ruled that IDEA only required that schools give students “some educational benefit” (the “merely more than de minimis” test), which the Court saw as being met.[6] Yet the parents filed a petition to the Supreme Court as to the intent and meaning of IDEA with regards to the education it was supposed to guarantee students with disabilities.[7] The parents sought to drive home the idea that schools acting under the IDEA must provide children with disabilities with “substantially equal opportunities to achieve academic success, attain self-sufficiency, and contribute to society.”[8] The Defendant rejected this argument, claiming that the earlier Supreme Court precedent of ensuring “some educational benefit” set out in Board of Education v. Rowley was more than sufficient to evaluate the standard by which to define a “free appropriate public education” under the IDEA.[9]

According to the Supreme Court in Board of Education v. Rowley, a “free appropriate public education” under what was then the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 (EHA) simply meant access to specialized instruction and related services which were sufficient to provide “some educational benefit” to the handicapped child.[10] However, it also noted that the Congressional intent behind the statute was to impose no greater substantial educational standard than was necessary to make access “meaningful”.[11]

Furthermore, the Supreme Court in Rowley refused to set out anyone specific standard or test for determining the adequacy of a child’s education under the EHA.[12] It is also worth pointing out that since Rowley was decided, major amendments were made to the EHA (later re-codified as the IDEA in 1990) to strengthen the standards and expectations under the statute for improving student performance and ensuring quality public education for children with disabilities.[13] Yet many courts since Rowley have still applied its holdings as an interpretative standard for defining “free appropriate public education” under the IDEA, as will be noted.

The ambiguity with regards to the standard for a “free appropriate public education” under the IDIEA has led to divergent approaches among the circuit courts. In addition to the “some educational benefit” standard extracted from Rowley by the Defendant, it is also worth pointing out that Rowley noted that Congress intended to make access to education “meaningful” for children with disabilities, which led to the adoption of a “meaningful educational benefit” standard that two circuits have adopted.[14] Five other circuits have adopted the “some educational benefit” standard in the Rowley case.[15]

The Supreme Court in this case disposed of these readings of Rowley, finding that the Court in that case did not establish any one test for deciding the adequacy of educational benefits conferred on children covered by the EHA (now IDEA).[16] It also held that the District Court and Tenth Circuit’s reliance on individual passages about there being no explicit substantive standard and about the “some educational benefit” standard read these statements in isolation.[17] Doing so ignored that the Court recognized an implicit substantive standard about the level of education and that “some educational benefit” was simply an incidental reference to the education of the child in question in Rawley rather than a governing standard for these types of cases.[18]

Most importantly, the Supreme Court ruled that the Tenth Circuit “merely more than de minimis” standard (reflecting “some educational benefit” was profoundly inadequate for measuring the adequacy of an education provided in an individualized education program (IEP) under the IDEA.[19] Instead, they held that a more demanding standard must be sought under the IDEA, where a “free appropriate public education” must be appropriately ambitious in light of his or her individual situation, however challenging that education may be to that student.[20] The Court found that even though the Congressional intent was vague with regards to the specific requirements under the IDEA, the Act still carried an implicit “substantive standard” which found that a child had his or her substantively adequate program of education (“free appropriate public education”)  if “the child’s…IEP sets out an educational program that is reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits.”[21] With regards to a grade school education, the Supreme Court’s standard for an appropriate IEP under the IDEA is that it should be an IEP that is  “reasonably calculated to enable the child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade.”[22] Exactly whether an IEP was “reasonably calculated” in the manner above was to be a factual inquiry by both school officials and the child’s parents or guardians.[23] The Court noted that the purpose of the IEP under the IDEA was to ensure that the child in question actually made progress in the classroom and that a substantive standard measuring adequacy of IEPs must be focused on human progress in order to meet the congressional intent behind the IDEA of including and educating handicapped children in school classrooms.[24]

In its decision, the Supreme Court set out the general contours for what an IEP should address. It defined the IEP’s provisions as reflecting the expectation that, for most children, a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) entails integration into classroom instruction as well as individualized special education calculated to ensure progress from grade level to grade level.[25] An IEP must 1.) first identify “a child’s present level of achievement, including explaining ‘how the child’s disability affects the child’s involvement and progress in the general education curriculum’”[26]; 2.) set out a statement of measurable annual goals designed to help the child get involved in and make progress in the general education curriculum, alongside the child’s specialized instruction and services as part of special education;[27] and 3.) the instruction and services must be provided with an eye toward the child’s progress in the general educational curriculum.[28] The Court struck down the 10th Circuit and Defendant’s assertion that these provisions only imposed procedural requirements as they showed that their presence implicated a substantive standard for measuring a FAPE for children covered by the IDEA; a standard more demanding than the “merely more than de minimis” test favored by the Defendant and lower decisions.[29]

Overall, a “free appropriate public education” under the IDEA tailored to the specific needs of the disabled child in question must integrate the child into the classroom to the point that they are receiving a level of instruction that is “reasonably calculated” to allow them to advance.

Finally, if parents and teachers disagree as to the substance of a child’s IEP, parents may rely on the IDEA’s dispute resolution procedures whereby they can resolve differences through an informal preliminary meeting or through formal mediation.[30] If neither of these measures produces an accord, the parents can seek a “due process hearing” before a state or local educational agency.[31] If they are still not satisfied, they can then proceed to formal litigation.[32]

By clarifying and articulating the standard in this way, the Supreme Court has fundamentally changed the way the law approaches the quality of special education for children with disabilities. It creates a substantive benchmark for crafting effective IEPs under the IDEA that can actually bolster the progress of children with special needs and it gives parents a greater say in how their children’s IEPs are crafted and how their children are made to meet them, as well as giving parents greater recourse to the law should disagreements arise, within the limits of the IDEA of course, so as to hold schools accountable if they fail to meet the Enfield benchmark for a proper “free appropriate public education.”

If you have any questions concerning possible disputes over the quality of your child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) and are concerned about the effectiveness of the existing administrative avenues for making changes, please contact the Kameli Law by filling out the form below. Our legal team is committed to providing quality legal services.



[1] Emma Brown, Supreme Court To Decide: What Level of Education Do Public Schools Legally Owe to Students With Disabilities, Wash. Post, Jan. 10, 2017,

[2] Endrew F. v. Douglas Cnty. Sch. Dist. RE-1, 137 S. Ct. 988, 999 (2017).

[3] Id. at 995.

[4] Aguilar, John, U.S. Supreme Court Will Hear Douglas County Student With Disabilities Case, The Denver Post (upd. Dec. 28, 2016)

[5] Id.

[6] Id. (The parents, in this case, withdrew their son (diagnosed with autism) from his private school in the defendant school district after being dissatisfied with how the school dealt with his condition and enrolled him in a special school. They later asked for reimbursement for tuition fees from the school district, claiming that the private school did not sufficiently provide a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) under the IDEA. Yet every legal body they appeared before, including an administrative law judge, a federal district court judge and the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the school district met its burden of providing disabled students only “some educational benefit.”).

[7] Id.

[8] Emma Brown, Supreme Court To Decide: What Level of Education Do Public Schools Legally Owe to Students With Disabilities, Wash. Post, Jan. 10, 2017,

[9] Id.

[10] Board of Education v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 201 (1982).

[11] Id. at 192.

[12] Id. at 202.

[13] Oakstone Cmty. Sch. v. Williams, 2013 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 197022, 6 (S.D. Ohio 2013).

[14] Emma Brown, Supreme Court To Decide: What Level of Education Do Public Schools Legally Owe to Students With Disabilities, Wash. Post, Jan. 10, 2017, (Specifically the Third Circuit (see D.S. v. Bayonne Bd. of Educ., 602 F.3d 553, 556 (3rd Cir. 2010) (“Although a state is not required to supply an education to a handicapped child that maximizes the child’s potential, it must confer an education providing ‘significant learning’and ‘meaningful benefit’ to the child.”)

and First Circuit (see C.D. v. Natick Pub. Sch. Dist., 924 F.3d 621, 628 (1st Cir. 2019) (“This circuit…said that to offer a FAPE, an IEP must be ‘individually designed’ and ‘reasonably calculated to confer a meaningful educational benefit’”)).

[15] Id.

[16] Endrew F., 137 S. Ct. at 997.

[17] 998.

[18] Id.

[19] Id. at 1000-1001 (the Court even went on to note that any student educated merely more than de minimis every year “can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all.”

[20] Id.

[21] Id. at 995-996.

[22] Id.

[23] Id. at 999

[24] Id.

[25] Id. at 1000.

[26] Id.

[27] Id.

[28] Id.

[29] Id.

[30] Id. at 994.

[31] Id.

[32] Id.



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