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Special Education Law: Endrew Court Decision

Research Question 1

How did Endrew change the world of Special Education?

Old Rowley Standard

Bd. of Educ. Of Hendrick Central Sch. Dist., Westchester Cty. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 209-10 (1982)



One of the first decisions handed down from the Supreme Court was Rowley in 1982, which held that FAPE did not require a school district to provide a sign language interpreter in a classroom for a deaf student when she easily advanced from grade to grade and performs better than the average child in her class.  Bd. of Educ. Of Hendrick Central Sch. Dist., Westchester Cty. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 209-10 (1982).  The court noted Congress had not defined “appropriate” education but it held FAPE is satisfied when “personalized instruction with sufficient support services to permit the child to benefit educationally from that instruction.”  Id. at 187 and 204.  The court established a two-pronged test to determine if the procedural safeguards had been followed:  (1) Has the state complied with the procedures set forth in the Act? and (2) Is the IEP reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits? Id. at 206-207. 

Background and Procedural History

Endrew v. Douglas Cty Sch. Dist., 137 S.Ct. 988 (2017).

Endrew was diagnosed with autism when he was two years old and because of this disability he is entitled to the benefits of IDEA and should be guaranteed a FAPE.  Endrew v. Douglas Cty. Sch. Dist., 137 S. Ct. 988, 996 (2017).  Endrew attended a public school in Douglas County School District from preschool through fourth grade and received special services through an IEP to address his needs.  Id.  The goals of his IEP remained largely unchanged and the Court took this to mean his progress had largely stalled.  Id.  His behavior was largely the same from year to year including screaming in the classroom, climbing over furniture, and running away from school.  Id.  Before entering his fifth-grade year, the school district proposed an IEP that was essentially the same as the previous one.  Id.  Endrews parents decided to enroll Endrew in a private school specializing in educating children with autism, Firefly Autism House.  Id.

While enrolled at Firefly, Endrew did much better because the school had developed a behavior plan that specified strategies to address Endrew’s most problematic behavior.  Id.  Within months of enrollment, Endrew achieved a degree of progress academically, and his parents approached the public school to establish a new IEP.  Id. at 997.  The second IEP presented was “no more adequate” than the previous proposal in the parents’ view.  Id.  The parents filed a complaint with the Colorado Department of Education to obtain reimbursement for Endrew’s private tuition at Firefly because the public school had failed to provide FAPE.  Id.  An Administrative Law Judge denied such relief, the District Court of Colorado affirmed the ALJ’s decision, and the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals also affirmed.  Id.

Endrew (IDEA)

Prior to the Supreme Court’s Endrew decision the prevailing standard for FAPE was that laid out in Rowley (discussed in more depth in Memorandum 1, Cases of First Impression).  In Rowley, the Supreme Court held FAPE consisted of “educational instruction specially designed to meet the unique needs of the handicapped child, supported by such services as are necessary to permit the child ‘to benefit’ from the instruction.” Bd. of Educ. Of Hendrick Cent. Sch. Dist., Westchester Cty. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 188-89 (1982).  The Court also noted that the statute failed to provide language prescribing any substantive standard for education of handicapped children, and it stated, “the language of the statute contains no requirement . . . that states maximize the potential of handicapped children . . . .” Id. at 189.  The firmly established that students with disability must be given some form of additional supports, but did not establish any level of scrutiny of expected progress.

Heightened Standard

The Endrew Court raised the Rowley standard when it held, “The IDEA demands more.  It requires an educational program reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”  Endrew v. Douglas Cty. Sch. Dist., 137 S. Ct. 988, 1001 (2017).  The Court noted that the standard for FAPE demands an education that is “markedly more demanding than the ‘merely more than de minimis” test that had been applied by the Tenth Circuit.  Id.  Given the nature of special education being such an individualized process, the Court declined to define what would constitute “appropriate” progress as it should be assessed on a case by case basis.  Id.  Through the complaint process and civil litigation, school officials should receive deference but they bear the burden to offer a “cogent and responsive explanation” to show the IEP is appropriate given the child’s circumstances.  Id. 1001-1002.

Advocacy Impact

The decision was widely celebrated among disability advocates as it expands rights of children with disabilities, creates a standard for special education services, and empowers parents to be advocate on behalf of their children.  One civil rights attorney and disability advocate was quoted as saying, “It is gratifying that the court understands disabilities today better than they did 30 years ago.  It is heartening to see the decision be unanimous, particularly in these partisan times.”  The Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law believes the law is not limited to students that are “fully integrated” but all students capable of meeting academic standards required of all students to advance from grade to grade.

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