Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District RE-1 (2017)

Although this case began within the jurisdiction of the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals (California is within the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ jurisdiction), the Supreme Court of the United States’ opinion in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District (No. 15-827 U.S. 3/22/2017) (“Endrew F.“) is now binding in every state and federal court.  Endrew F. concerns a Free Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”) for an autistic boy under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) by means of an Individualized Education Program (“IEP”).  (20 U. S. C. §§1401(9)(D), 1412(a)(1).)

The Supreme Court previously held that IDEA “guarantees a substantively adequate program of education to all eligible children, and that this requirement is satisfied if the child’s IEP sets out an educational program that is ‘reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits.’ . . .  For children fully integrated into the regular classroom, this would typically require an IEP ‘reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive passing marks and advance from grade to grade.'”  (Endrew F.  slip op. syllabus, citing Bd. of Ed. of Hendrick Hudson Central School Dist., Westchester Cnty. v. Rowley (1982) 458 U. S. 176 (“Rowley“).)  The Supreme Court provided, however, no additional guidance to determine when that standard is satisfied. 

Endrew had been diagnosed with autism at age two and the school district provided annual IEPs for him from preschool through 4th grade.  After deciding the school district’s IEPs were not adequate when Endrew’s “academic and functional progress had stalled,” Endrew’s parents removed him from public school for fifth grade and enrolled him at Firefly Autism House, a private school.  They filed an administrative complaint for reimbursement with the Colorado Department of Education for the school district’s failure to comply with IDEA in fashioning Endrew’s IEPs.  The complaint was denied, after which they sued the Douglas County School District in federal district court for reimbursement of Endrew’s tuition at Firefly.

The trial judge concluded the standard was an IEP that simply opens the door to the classroom as a FAPE, which Endrew had received, and then denied the request for reimbursement.  On appeal to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, the appellate court affirmed the trial court’s decision in favor of the school district.  Using as its standard that he was only entitled to an “educational benefit [that is] merely . . . more than de minimis,” Endrew had received a FAPE.  The opinion further states the benefit conferred by the school district had been “reasonably calculated to enable [Endrew] to make some progress.”

The Tenth Circuit’s standard appears to be at odds with Rowley, which makes clear that the education conferred on a disabled student under IDEA is much more than merely above de minimis.  “[S]ome” progress would seem to be appropriate for some children, but it is not always appropriate progress for a child fully-integrated into the classroom when the level of instruction is not “reasonably calculated to permit advancement through the general curriculum.”

The Supreme Court of the United States vacated the Tenth Circuit opinion in Endrew F. and remanded the matter to the trial court.  In a rare unanimous 8-0 decision, the Supreme Court held that under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act the school must offer an individualized education program that is reasonably calculated to enable Endrew to make progress that is appropriate in light of his circumstances.