The United States Supreme Court rarely weighs in on the topic of special education, which is largely regarded as a state or local issue, and even more rarely issues a unanimous decision redefining an existing standard. That is exactly what happened, however, in the March, 2017 decision of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District.
The decision significantly elevated the standard for what must be accomplished in educating special needs children who qualify for an Individualized Education Plan (I.E.P.). Existing law requires that a child who meets the required standard have an individualized educational plan that is designed to meet the unique needs of that child. The question raised in this Supreme Court case asked how much progress is sufficient once that plan is implemented. The parents of Endrew F. pulled their autistic child out of public school after they deemed his progress to be insufficient (or nonexistent), and then sued to have the local district pay for his placement in a private school for autistic children.
The Court ruled in favor of the parents, finding that the district had not met their obligation to provide a meaningful education for Endrew. Prior to the Douglas County decision, the progress required under the I.E.P. had only to be “more than de minimis.” This was tantamount to saying that so long as a district provided some benefit, rather than none at all, it was satisfying its obligation. Writing for this unanimous Supreme Court, Chief Justice John Roberts instead said that an I.E.P. must rise to the level of being “appropriately ambitious in light of [the child’s] circumstances” and that, “every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”
The Court did not, and probably cannot, define what “appropriate progress” would be for each student. The very nature of an I.E.P. means that such a threshold can only be defined on a student by student basis. The court made it clear, however, that simply doing “something” is no longer enough. Meaningful, individualized progress requires more than a “de minimis” effort.