By Lisa Soronen
You don't have to be a linguist to understand that there is a wide gap between the meaning of “some” and “meaningful.”
The U.S. Supreme Court must pick between these words to determine what level of educational benefits students with disabilities must receive.
Per the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a student with a disability receives an individualized education program (IEP), which is intended to provide that student with a “free and appropriate public education” (FAPE). Parents and educators determine the content of each IEP.
According to the Supreme Court in Board of Education v. Rowley (1982), to provide a FAPE, an IEP must be “reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits.”
The question the Supreme Court will decide in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, is what level of educational benefit must school districts confer on children with disabilities to provide them with a FAPE.
Endrew F is autistic and has ADHD. His parents removed him from Douglas County School District because they thought he wasn’t making adequate progress in his education. Per IDEA, parents may enroll their child with a disability in a private school and receive reimbursement from the public school if the public school was unable to provide the child a FAPE. The district argued it was able to provide Endrew F. a FAPE and refused to reimburse his parents for the cost of private school tuition.
Some federal circuit courts have held that school districts are required to provide special education students “meaningful” educational benefits. Others, like the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in this case, have held that school districts only have to provide “some” educational benefits. Board of Education v. Rowley was the first case where the Supreme Court defined FAPE. Circuit courts cite language in Rowley that supports both the “meaningful” and the “some” standard. And, arguably, post-Rowley amendments to IDEA support the “meaningful” language.
It seems likely that most IEPs provide students with disabilities “meaningful” educational benefits regardless of what circuit court precedent requires.
“Meaningful v. “some” probably makes the most difference where a student has significant and/or multiple disabilities or where, as in this case, parents and the school district disagree whether an IEP is adequate.
Lisa Soronen is executive director of the State and Local Legal Center and covers Supreme Court issues for the NCSL Blog.