Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), School districts are required to provide eligible special needs students with a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). But what does that mean? What is appropriate for an individual student? How much progress should they make in order to determine that their IEP is appropriately designed to meet their needs?
In 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a paramount opinion in a case called Board of Education of Hendrick Hudsona Central School District v. Rowley. Rowley was a hugely important case in the area of special education because it was the first U.S. Supreme Court case to interpret the meaning of the IDEA, and further, it is cited in virtually every FAPE-related judicial and administrative decision.
In Rowley, the high Court provided guidance on the factual question of whether a school district provided a student with a FAPE by providing a two part test. The first question is whether the District has complied with the procedural aspects of the IDEA, and secondly, whether a student's Individualized Education Program (IEP) is "reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive an educational benefit." The Court in Rowley provided further guidance by pointing out that the IDEA does not require districts to provide the best possible educational services to a student, however, the IDEA does confer on the student the right to receive a program designed to provide "some educational benefit," or a "basic floor of opportunity."
This has been the standard for years. However still open to much interpretation, a 2015 ruling from the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals expanded the split between circuits about the level of educational benefit school districts must provide to children with disabilities.
On September 29, 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court granted a petition for a writ of certiorari regarding expanding the definition of a FAPE.
The question presented to the Supreme Court is whether the "educational benefit" provided by a school district must be "merely more than "de minimis" or "meaningful" to satisfy the requirements of a FAPE.
On January 11, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral argument and indicated it would be issuing an opinion sometime during the summer of 2017. Our office and many special education enthusiasts are waiting in great anticipation of what the Court might provide in terms of additional guidance. We will certainly plan to provide an update as soon as it comes out.