A Recent Supreme Court Ruling Could Impact Your Child’s IEP

A Brief Overview

  • The parents of a child named Endrew F argued that their son with a disability deserved more from his public school. They appealed their case all the way to the Supreme Court, and the ruling in their favor could mean more robust rights for all children with Individualized Education Programs (IEPs).
  • The implications of this unanimous decision are reverberating through schools and agencies that oversee special education. Read on to learn how you can participate in important conversations about these uplifted standards.
  • Learn key phrases from this ruling to help you be a proactive member of your child’s IEP team. The U.S. Department of Education has an important guidance document that includes some of this language: For example, a school must offer an IEP “to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” The court additionally emphasized the requirement that “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”
  • This article and the included resource links can help you understand the Endrew F ruling and how you might use this information in advocating for your child’s rights.

Full Article

Endrew F (Drew) is a student with autism, ADHD and challenging behaviors. His disabilities impact his academic and functional skills, including his ability to effectively communicate about his emotions and needs. He attended a public elementary school in Douglas County, Colorado, and qualified for special education with an Individualized Education Program (IEP). His parents moved him to a private school in fourth grade, arguing that:

  1. Drew did not make measurable progress on the goals set in his past IEPs, and
  2. The IEP did not address Drew’s escalating behavior problems.

Drew had more success at the private school, and his parents filed a Due Process complaint with the Colorado Department of Education in 2012. They requested reimbursement for the private school tuition on the basis that the public school had failed to provide access to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), which is a cornerstone of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal law that governs special education.

The parents argued, and lost, at the state, district and circuit court levels. These lower courts ruled that because Drew had made at least some progress toward his IEP goals, then the school had met its obligation to provide FAPE. Wrightslaw is one source for more detail about the case and its history.

The family filed an appeal with the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS), and on March 22, 2017, the court ruled in their favor. The ruling, which took effect immediately, ended a discrepancy in circuit courts across the country by determining that a trivial amount of progress (“merely more than de minimis”) is insufficient to satisfy a student’s right to FAPE. In order to meet its “substantive obligation under the IDEA,” the court stated, “a school must offer an IEP that is reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

Since then, a variety of agencies have been analyzing the court’s unanimous ruling and creating guidance documents to help schools and families understand the implications of this case. On April 9, 2018, The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) provided a two-hour webinar with speakers from various education fields to discuss the ruling and its broad-sweeping impact on schools and families. Parents need to understand this case, the experts agree, because family voices are critical to raising the level of expectation.

High expectations are a theme in discussions about the ruling. Some other emerging themes:

  • Parents/guardians are the first and most important lifelong teachers of their children. They, therefore, need to be fully welcomed and heard as key collaborators in the process.
  • IEP teams need to assure relevance when writing appropriately ambitious IEP goals for lifelong learning and success in varied environments. Goals toward narrowly defined academic “mastery” often miss this opportunity to create flexible learners.
  • State academic standards should be noted at the IEP table, but challenging objectives are to be individualized, not “one size fits all” or based in goals generated by computer data programs.
  • Educational benefit is determined on an individual basis, and standards for measurement must be varied and rigorous to ensure meaningful progress.
  • An IEP with the same goals year-after-year does not meet the standard of FAPE.

The Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN) issued a summary of the Endrew F ruling that includes a list of “Roles and Responsibilities” for professionals and families. “This new standard will require a prospective judgment by school officials that will be informed not only by the expertise of school officials, but also by the input of the child’s parents and guardians,” SPAN stated in this overview document.

Understood, a consortium of non-profit agencies committed to providing information on attention and learning problems in children ages 3-21, developed a free, downloadable Endrew F Advocacy Toolkit that provides a four-page handout of Talking Points and a four-page IEP Worksheet to assist parents in using principles from the Endrew F ruling in their own advocacy. For example, the court’s ruling included the words “appropriately ambitious” as a requirement for IEP goals. The worksheet offers a place where a parent can record a list of areas that they feel a child’s goals might not be ambitious enough. The worksheet then suggests a script for a parent to use at an IEP meeting:

“I know that my child’s goals should be appropriately ambitious. Even if my child is behind in academics, the IEP goals should aim to help my child catch up. When can we look at present level of performance and put services and supports in place, so we can set goals that allow my child to meet the same standards as his peers?”

The National Center for Parent Leadership, Advocacy, and Community Empowerment (National PLACE) offered a Webinar to explain how the ruling provides families with a new advocacy tool. PLACE, a membership organization whose website is named “Parents at the Table,” has made available some resource documents, including a Power Point with a set of slides titled: “What Parents Can Do.” For example, PLACE suggests that parents prepare questions for an IEP meeting using key phrases pulled directly from the Supreme Court’s ruling. Here are some sample questions:

  • Has the team carefully considered my child’s potential for growth?
  • Have we considered whether my child is on track to achieve or exceed grade-level proficiency?
  • Are the goals appropriately ambitious, with sufficiently challenging objectives?
  • How is the IEP reasonably calculated to enable my child to make progress appropriate in light of his circumstances?

PLACE emphasizes that parents should not accept an IEP with the same goals and objectives from year to year, indicators that a child has failed to make meaningful progress. And, using language directly from the SCOTUS ruling, PLACE encourages parents to hold schools accountable for a child’s progress by requesting a “cogent and responsive explanation” for decisions about goals and progress measurements.

Diana Autin, an attorney and executive director of National PLACE, uses the webinar platform to review foundational principles of the IDEA, re-authorized by Congress in 2004, to set a stage for understanding new guidelines related to the SCOTUS ruling. “It’s important to note that Endrew F can’t be understood or defined or used without it being within the context of the IEP requirements of IDEA,” she says.

Autin shares the PLACE webinar platform with Michael Yudin, former assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education and a longtime national leader in disability rights. Yudin points to key language in the ruling that clarifies earlier Department of Education guidance documents that he helped develop. The heart of IDEA, he says, is specially designed instruction that helps students reach goals that are “ambitious but achievable” and in alignment with grade-level content standards. “Specially designed instruction is adapting as appropriate to the needs of the child,” Yudin says, “so that the content, methodology and the delivery of instruction are appropriate to ensure access to the general curriculum so that the child can meet the educational standards that apply to all children.”

Inclusion sometimes requires access to specially designed instruction in Social-Emotional Learning (SEL), and the Endrew F decision reinforces the IDEA’s requirement for necessary behavioral interventions and supports, Yudin says. “This guidance clearly states that failure to consider and provide those needed behavioral supports and interventions through the IEP is in fact likely to result in a denial of FAPE.”

The child at the heart of this landmark case, Drew, struggled with phobias and had behaviors that included screaming, climbing over furniture and occasionally running from school. According to the PLACE webinar: “His parents believed that his progress had stalled and that the strategies used to address his behaviors were insufficient to allow him to learn.” Behavior interventions at the private school chosen by Drew’s parents helped, and his access to learning improved. In considering all aspects of the case, including a lack of suitable behavior interventions, the Supreme Court ruled that the public school had denied Drew access to FAPE.

A child “must be afforded the opportunity for significant learning,” the court stated. And individualized supports and programming must provide for more than “de minimis,” or trivial, progress to meet the standard of FAPE. “For children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to sitting idly,” the court wrote, “…awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out.”

The ruling in Endrew F has brought new emphasis to existing policy related to discipline and behavior. On August 1, 2016, the U.S. Department of Education issued a Dear Colleague guidance document to establish clarity about the IDEA’s requirements for behavioral assessments and interventions. “Recent data on short-term disciplinary removals from the current placement strongly suggest that many children with disabilities may not be receiving appropriate behavioral interventions and supports, and other strategies, in their IEPs,” the document states. “In light of research about the detrimental impacts of disciplinary removals… the Department is issuing this guidance to clarify that schools, charter schools, and educational programs in juvenile correctional facilities must provide appropriate behavioral supports to children with disabilities who require such supports in order to receive FAPE and placement in the least restrictive environment (LRE).”

The Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) offered a summary of policy that included this statement: “Parents may want to request an IEP Team meeting following disciplinary removal or changes in the child’s behavior that impede the child’s learning or that of others, as these likely indicate that the IEP may not be properly addressing the child’s behavioral needs or is not being properly implemented.”

For further information about the Endrew F decision and its implications, refer to the following resources:

The Center for Parent Information and Resources/Parent Center Hub

National PLACE/Parents at the Table

Wrightslaw

Understood Endrew F Advocacy Toolkit

SCOTUSblog

SPAN Parent Advocacy Network

OSEP IDEAs that Work