Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District: Students With Disabilities and “Meaningful” Education

January 11, 2016 marked a momentous day for individuals with disabilities throughout the United States with the Supreme Court hearing arguments for Endrew v. Douglas County School District. The debate revolves around the interpretation of the 1982 Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley case, relating to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 1975 (IDEA).

A family in Colorado and their son Endrew argue that IDEA was intended to provide children with disabilities the access to a meaningful education which also allows for “significant educational progress.” The school district, however, interprets that IDEA has no set standard, and simply ensures that the child receives personalized education which is sufficient (i.e. “merely more than de minimus”). Endrew’s family is concerned that the Douglas County school district did not offer adequate resources for children with disabilities to achieve. After Endrew completed the fourth grade in the Douglas County School District accompanied by his Individualized Educational Plan (IEP), his parents disagreed with the proposed IEP for his fifth year and made the decision to put him in a private school. Endrew and his parents argued that he was not being sufficiently provided a Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE), as mandated by the IDEA, and were seeking reimbursement for the tuition of his private school.

Although Endrew and his family lost this case, over the course of administrative hearings and lower court cases, the family and the school district have been arguing over the measure of “some academic progress” and whether the district must meet a “merely more than de minimus” requirement. The federal government supports Endrew and his parents, drawing on Rowley which indicated that a FAPE must provide meaningful access to education which is much higher than “merely more than de minimus.”

Through the course of the Supreme Court’s oral arguments, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. summarized that the main issue at hand is whether or not IDEA places emphasis on the word “some” or the word “benefit” in the phrase “some benefit”, each resulting in both contrasting and notable meanings that has manifested into the current argument: Providing some benefit would achieve the goals of the school district in distributing education that is merely better than nothing; whereas providing some benefit implies that the education be meaningful and allow for academic progress, which Endrew and his parents seek. Justice Elena Kagan also reminded the school district’s attorney of the precedents set in previous cases in which “some benefit” was repeatedly intended to have “some bite.”

The outcome of the Court’s decision will define the quality of education for students with disabilities for years to come. Those interested in following the case, can find a copy of the transcript from this week’s arguments here. United Cerebral Palsy, along with other organizations, has signed to an amicus brief which can be viewed here. We will continue to monitor this case, and will be interested to see how the Court decides.