On March 22, the U.S. Supreme Court decided the case of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, a case involving the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. In the case, the court determined that a special needs child’s “educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances, just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most children in the regular classroom. The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”

In its unanimous decision, the court was called upon to determine the educational standards that are required to be met by a student’s Individualized Educational Program (IEP).  The case concerned a Colorado special education student with autism whose parents felt that their student’s IEP failed to address his many behavioral challenges.  The parents unilaterally enrolled him in a private school where their student did much better, and the school district then presented the parents with a new IEP, which the parents rejected because it was not meaningfully different from the previous IEP.

The parents filed an action seeking tuition reimbursement from the district on the grounds that the district’s IEP was not designed to provide their student with a free and appropriate public education.  An administrative law judge rejected the parents’ claim.  The parents then appealed to the federal district court which also rejected their claim, stating that the district’s IEP was designed to show at least “minimal progress” from year to year.  The parents appealed to the federal Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals which also rejected the parents claim, saying that the IEP was designed to show “some educational  benefit.”

In rejecting the lower court standard, the U.S. Supreme Court determined that, “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 when they were old enough to drop out’…. 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.”  The Supreme Court sent the case back to the lower court for the case to be determined using this higher standard.

What does this mean for special education cases in New Jersey? In New Jersey and other states within the territory of the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals, we have been using the “meaningful benefit” standard since 1988 when the court in Polk v. Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit 16  determined that was the standard to be used.  The “meaningful benefit” standard is a higher standard than the lower court’s “some benefit” standard in the Endrew F. case.

A “meaningful benefit” is one in which the IEP is likely to produce progress, not trivial educational advancement.  Thus, because the Third Circuit Court has required the use of this higher standard, IEP’s should have already been designed to confer “meaningful benefits” for the special education students in New Jersey.

Boards of education are urged to confer with board counsel concerning whether the Endrew F ruling will require adjustments to their special education programs.