Supreme Court asked to review key special education standard

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classroom of children at their desks, including a child in a wheelchairThe Supreme Court is seeking the Obama Administration’s opinion as to whether to grant certiorari in a case that could clarify the underlying standard for determining if a student’s Individualized Education Program complies with federal law.

In the 1982 case Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley, the Supreme Court declined to find that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires schools to provide special education students with opportunities equal to that of their peers. Rather, it determined that the IDEA merely mandates that each IEP be “reasonably calculated to confer an educational benefit on the child.”

Courts are split in their interpretation of this language. Two circuit courts use a higher “meaningful education” standard. Five other courts use a lower “some educational benefit” standard, while the rest are split within the circuit or have not articulated a clear test.

In Endrew v. Douglas School District, a boy with autism attended a Colorado public school from kindergarten to fourth grade. Despite falling substantially behind in his education and displaying an array of injurious and dangerous behaviors, the school’s proposed fifth-grade IEP was essentially identical to his fourth-grade IEP, according to the plaintiff’s petition to the Supreme Court [PDF].

As a result, the boy’s parents transferred him to a special private school for children with autism, the Firefly Autism House. They also filed a due process complaint against the school in 2012, requesting that it reimburse them for the private school’s tuition fees due to its failure to provide a compliant IEP. The hearing officer and district court both ruled against the parents.

While acknowledging that some courts have “applied a higher standard,” the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit [PDF] used the “some educational benefit standard” and similarly ruled in the school’s favor.

“This is without question a close case, but we find there are sufficient indications of Drew’s past progress to find the IEP rejected by the parents substantively adequate under our prevailing standard,” the 10th Circuit stated. “It is clear from the testimony at the due process hearing that Drew is thriving at Firefly. But is not the District’s burden to pay for his placement there when Drew was making some process under its tutelage. That is all that is required.”

In the petition, disability advocates argue that substantive developments in the IDEA, particularly 1997 amendments to the law, make clear that the IDEA mandates higher standards than that being required by the 10th Circuit.

Calling the issue “ripe for resolution,” disability advocates urged the Supreme Court to take up the case and provide guidance for educators, families and advocates.

“Without this Court’s intervention, the educational benefit to which a child with a disability is entitled will continue to depend on the state in which he or she lives,” the petition states. “Now, for instance, a child with autism is entitled to only a just-above-trivial educational benefit in New York, which would be insufficient to satisfy the IDEA just across the border in the New Jersey suburbs of New York City.”

Autism Speaks and the Public Interest Law Center also filed an amicus brief [PDF], urging the high court to take the case.