Friday, January 13, 2017

Supreme Court Hears Case on Educational Benefit

Last June, we wrote about a case that was being considered for hearing before the United States Supreme Court, Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. The Supreme Court subsequently agreed to hear this case and oral arguments before the Court were held this past Wednesday. As we had discussed, the case was brought by the parents of a child with autism who were seeking reimbursement for private school tuition from their public school district in Colorado, and is focused on the level of educational benefit that a school must provide to a student with a disability eligible to receive special education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

The IDEA requires that a student receive an "appropriate" education, often referred to as "FAPE" - a free, appropriate, public education -and if a district program does not provide FAPE, then the district may be required to pay for the student to attend a private school that does provide such benefit. The "appropriate" standard was first formulated in 1982 and over the years there has been a divergence among  states as to what that standard really means, with terms like "more than de minimus" and "meaningful" being applied by courts in different states in different ways. Resolving this different interpretation of a federal law is one of the key roles of the U.S. Supreme Court. 

In the Endrew case, the student's parents were not satisfied with the very minimal progress he had been making in his public school program, both academically and behaviorally. By not adequately addressing his emotional and behavioral needs, the public school  program did not enable him to advance academically. The Endrews decided to enroll him in a private school and to seek reimbursement for the tuition they paid. Notably, once removed from the public school and receiving support for his emotional and behavioral needs, young Mr. Endrew made real academic progress; no one disputes that the new program offered him substantial benefits. 

In what Justice Alito described as "a blizzard of words", the attorneys representing the school district, the parents, and the U.S. government sought a clear standard for the benefit to be achieved under FAPE, one that would meet the needs of students, recognize that students with severe disabilities might not be able to make the same kind of progress as other, less disabled students, and not place undue financial burdens on school districts to pay for private school tuition. The goal, as noted in the brief filed by the Solicitor General, representing the U.S. government, should be to have the Supreme Court "clarify the proper FAPE analysis and establish a uniform standard to guide courts, state educational agencies, and parents across the country". We will see if the court is able to do so. 

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