United States Supreme Court Decides Major Special Education Case

Over thirty years ago in Board of Education v. Rowley, the United States Supreme Court found that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) guarantees a substantively adequate program of education to all eligible children, and that this requirement is satisfied if a child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) sets out an educational program that is “reasonably calculated to enable a child to receive educational benefits.”

For children fully integrated in the regular classroom, this would typically require an IEP “reasonably calculated to enable the child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade.” However, because the IEP challenged in Rowley clearly met this standard, the Supreme Court declined “to establish any one test for determining the adequacy of educational benefits conferred upon all children covered by the [IDEA].” 

On March 22, the Supreme Court issued its opinion in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. In this case, the Supreme Court determined that to meet its obligations under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”


Endrew F., a child with autism, received annual IEPs from preschool through fourth grade. By fourth grade, Endrew’s parents believed his academic and functional progress had stalled. When the school district proposed a fifth grade IEP that resembled those from past years, Endrew’s parents removed him from public school and enrolled him in a specialized private school, where he made significant progress.   

School district representatives later presented Endrew’s parents with a new fifth grade IEP, but they considered it no more adequate than the original plan. They then sought reimbursement for Endrew’s private school tuition by filing a complaint under the IDEA with the Colorado Department of Education.

Their claim was denied, and the Federal District Court and Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that decision. In particular, the Tenth Circuit found that an IEP is adequate as long as it is calculated to confer an “educational benefit [that is] merely . . . more than de minimis” and that Endrew’s IEP had been “reasonably calculated to enable [him] to make some progress.”  


In a unanimous decision reversing the Tenth Circuit, the Supreme Court wrote that the Rowley standard “is markedly more demanding than the ’merely more than de minimis’ test applied by the Tenth Circuit.” And while it rejected the school district’s argument that Rowley had adopted a “some educational benefit” standard, the Supreme Court also declined to adopt the standard urged by the parents that disabled students must be provided with “opportunities to achieve academic success, attain self-sufficiency, and contribute to society that are substantially equal to the opportunities afforded children without disabilities.”

The Supreme Court’s opinion made it clear that it was not adopting a new standard (and thereby superseding Rowley) for determining if a school district has provided a FAPE. Instead, the Court emphasized that the “absence of a bright-line rule, however, should not be mistaken for ‘an invitation to the courts to substitute their own notions of sound educational policy for those of the school authorities which they review.’”