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Does Meaningful vs. Some Matter?

Sept. 29, 2016

Today the U.S. Supreme Court granted review in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District RE-1 a case about the level of education benefit a special education student must receive for a school district to provide an appropriate education under federal special education law.

Under federal law, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), children with disabilities are entitled to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). Back in 1982 the U.S. Supreme Court held in Rowley that a student’s individualized education program (IEP) must be “reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits.” The Court elaborated that the education a child receives must confer “some educational benefit” and that the benefit must be sufficient to provide each child with “access” to education that is “meaningful.” Post Rowley federal appeals courts have been divided over how much benefit a child must receive under his or her IEP in order to receive FAPE. Is it “some” educational benefit or is it “meaningful” educational benefit? Whereas at least six circuits adopt versions of the “some” benefit, two circuits apply the other standard that may require a greater degree of educational benefit, a “meaningful” benefit. The U.S. Supreme Court will now hear argument and possibly resolve the split of authority. Last year in Endrew F. the 10th Circuit ruled a Colorado child with autism and ADHD received FAPE because the public school IEP provided “some educational benefit”. The 10th Circuit court denied the parents request for reimbursement at a private school. The 10th Circuit also acknowledged that several other federal courts of appeals have adopted a higher standard that requires an IEP to result in a “meaningful educational benefit” however the in their appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court argued that when discussing that it was a close case, the 10th Circuit did not address whether parents would prevail under the “higher standard” adopted by other circuits. When you start analyzing the rabbit hole of educational benefit it is hard to distinguish between “some educational benefit” vs. “meaningful educational benefit”. Does one term create a higher standard? How do we define the difference? How do we make it operational? Rather than dance around the issue of some vs. meaningful, perhaps we ought to focus on the required elements of IDEA:

  1. Evaluation drives statement of needs.

  2. The statement of needs drives the drafting of goals and objectives, which should be challenging yet attainable.

  3. The goals and objectives drives services. The services need to address the goals which need to meet the needs.

  4. If the goals prove too easy or too hard, the district has the obligation to change those goals.

If school districts were held responsible for following this process with integrity, the whole issue of the level of educational benefit recedes into the woodwork. Endrew F. will likely to be argued sometime early next year in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.