United States Supreme Court Hears Special Education Case

Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District involves the case of an autistic child whose parents’ dissatisfaction with his education in a local public school led them to enroll him in a private school and seek reimbursement for the cost of tuition. Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Endrew and other children with disabilities are entitled to a free appropriate public education, which is implemented through an Individualized Education Program (IEP). 

However, federal courts across the country disagree on what kind of educational benefits schools must provide under the IDEA. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals held in Endrew’s case that schools must merely provide “some non-trivial benefit,” other courts have found that schools must provide a “substantial benefit,” and other courts fall somewhere in the middle. 

On January 11, the United States Supreme Court heard oral argument in this case. During oral argument, it was apparent that the justices were dissatisfied with the Tenth Circuit's ruling that school districts can satisfy the IDEA's requirements as long as they offer a disabled student an educational program that provides him with a benefit that is more than merely "de minimis" (or non-trivial). However, it was less clear exactly what standard (if any) the justices might substitute for the “more than merely de minimis” standard.

The disabled student’s attorney argued that the IDEA required the school district to offer a program that is “reasonably calculated to provide” him with educational opportunities that are “substantially equal” to those offered to other students. This standard, argued the attorney, follows directly from the text of the IDEA.

However, one justice expressed concern about what new costs this proposed standard might impose on school districts by requiring them to provide additional services. Another justice wondered about the propriety of the justices – who, he suggested, “don’t know much about” education – creating a standard that could then be interpreted differently by “judges and lawyers and people” all over the country.

The school district’s attorney was questioned on his attempt to equate the requirement that an IEP provide “some benefit” with the “more than merely de minimis” standard. Chief Justice Roberts told the school district’s attorney that this “some benefit” requirement was “problematic” because the Supreme Court’s previous cases specifically indicate that an IEP must provide “enough benefit to keep track with grade progress. . . [a]nd if that’s what the standard is . . that’s certainly more than de minimis.”

Today’s argument ended with the justices faced with an issue in which there is no easy answer. However, they seemed unhappy with the “more than merely de minimis” standard. The standard proposed by the federal government – which would require the school district to offer a program “aimed at significant educational progress in light of the child’s circumstances” – may be where the Supreme Court comes down on this issue.  

A decison in this case is expected this summer.