A Higher Bar For Special Education

Endrew F v DCSD, US District Court, Colorado

The Family of Endrew F faced a tough decision regarding their son’s education. As a child on the autism spectrum and with ADHD, he was a challenge in the classroom. During the time he attended Douglas County School District schools (DCSD), his parents felt he was not improving to the extent he could. They moved him to a private school, Firefly, where he improved academically and socially.

First, Endrew’s family filed a complaint with the Colorado Department of Education (CDE) requesting tuition reimbursement. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) says that public schools must provide children with disabilities a Free Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”). To ensure this, schools must provide an Individualized Education Program (“IEP”), a written document that describes a student’s educational goals and plans to achieve those goals. A 1982 decision in Bd. of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (1982), established the standard that the IEP should be “reasonably calculated” to confer an educational benefit on the child. Under IDEA, if parents feel that their children’s schools are not providing a FAPE, parents may enroll their children in private school and seek tuition reimbursement from their school district. But it must be proved that the District is violating IDEA.

The Administrative Law Judge denied the complaint saying that the IEP was clear and that Endrew had made some academic progress.

The next step was a lawsuit against DCSD, filed in the Federal District Court of Colorado. The District Court agreed with DCSD that the IEP was adequate, Endrew had made “at the least, minimal progress” and that the standard was that the state provide “some educational benefit.”

From there, the family appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court who agreed with the District Court.

Again, an appeal. This time to the Supreme Court of the United States.

At this point things changed. In a unanimous decision, the Supreme Court agreed with the family. “De minimis,” or minimum achievement standard did not equal the FAPE under IDEA.

The Supreme Court vacated the prior decisions and remanded the case back to the lower courts.

First to the Ten Circuit Court of Appeals, who delegated it downward.

It fell to Judge Lewis T. Babcock, US District Court, Colorado to make a new ruling based on the guidance provided by the U.S. Supreme Court. He reversed the decision from the Administrative Law Judge and reviewed the requirements of IDEA and FAPE as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court. He ruled that DCSD had violated IDEA because they provided a “de minimis” level of education for Endrew and that the private school provided him with a FAPE “reasonably calculated” to provide him with educational benefits. When a District violates IDEA, the parents can choose to move the child to a private school without the District’s approval. And IDEA provides that the District pay for that education as a part of FAPE.

Babcock referenced the Supreme Court’s ruling: “When all is said and done, a student offered an educational program providing ‘merely more than de minimis’ progress from year to year can hardly be said to have been offered an education at all. For children with disabilities, receiving instruction that aims so low would be tantamount to ‘sitting idly…awaiting the time until they were old enough to drop out.’”

Babcock decided the family was due to tuition reimbursement and related legal expenses. Tuition at Fire Fly is $70,000 a year. Legal expenses include the cost of years of litigation, and a presentation before the U.S. Supreme Court. Endrew’s attorneys estimate the amount owed to be over $1 million dollars.

It’s a lot of money for the District to pay. But it is an important win for parents of special education students everywhere. A minimum education for a SPED student is no longer the basic standard of education.

Next: Equity of Access vs Equality of Outcomes

2018-04-24T22:26:13+00:00