Supreme Court rules in favor of higher standards for students with disabilities

Last week, the Supreme Court ruled that students with disabilities have the right to advance to their fullest potential and that “the minimum” was not an acceptable benchmark for achievement.


The case involved a fourth grader, Endrew, who was diagnosed with Autism when he was two years old. He attended public school from Kindergarten through fourth grade. He had an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), which outlined his academic goals, needs, and supports. At the end of his fourth grade year, his parents said that his IEP for fifth grade was so similar to his IEP for fourth grade, that he wouldn’t have made any academic progress. His learning would have stalled.

His parents sent him to a different school that specialized in children with Autism. He flourished, and his behavioral challenges improved. His parents argued that the district should pay for the school’s tuition, since their district school wasn’t meeting his needs and allowing him to progress at his full potential.

The lower courts, including the Tenth Circuit, rejected the argument. Precedent, the courts cited, stated that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, which sets federal standards for special education programs) required educational benefits that were only more than “de minimus,” meaning that as long as the student makes any kind of progress, the school has done it’s job. Since Endrew would be going up a grade, he was making progress.

Supreme Court Decision

The Supreme Court unanimously decided that “de minimus” wasn’t the standard of IDEA. They ruled that IDEA “demanded more” than just minimal academic progress from year to year. Students should be expected to progress as much as their circumstances allow:

But his educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances, just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most children in the regular classroom. The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives. Of course this describes a general standard, not a formula…

When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing “merely more than de minimis” progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all. For children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to “sitting idly . . . awaiting the time when they were old enough to ‘drop out.’”

We will not attempt to elaborate on what “appropriate” progress will look like from case to case. It is in the nature of the Act and the standard we adopt to resist such an effort: The adequacy of a given IEP turns on the unique circumstances of the child for whom it was created. This 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.”

In broad terms, it means that IEPs must remain a dynamic, truly individualized tool to help students with disabilities meet their own fullest potential. The Court was very wary of going beyond that and did not set up a certain formula or other standard to which all IEPs should meet; rather, the Chief Justice affirmed that those decisions are up to the student’s team of experts, which includes his or her parents and teachers.

They rejected Endrew’s parents’ claim that his education should “achieve academic success” and “attain self-sufficiency.” That, they cited, is beyond the scope of the Court–it’s up to the student’s special education team to determine whether those goals are appropriate.

And, the Court did not rule on whether the district should pay the tuition–the case goes back to a lower court. But, instead of hearing the case in the lens of “minimal progress,” it will now have to decide whether Endrew had the opportunity to advance at his fullest potential.

Read the full opinion here.

Amy Howe, Opinion analysis: Court’s decision rejecting low bar for students with disabilities, under the spotlight, SCOTUSblog (Mar. 23, 2017, 11:26 AM),
Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, 580 U.S. ___ (2017)