High court to reconsider definition of FAPE
(District of Columbia) A case now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court may answer the 40 year old question: what, specifically, constitutes a “free appropriate public education.”
States have been required to provide to students with disabilities a free appropriate public education–or FAPE–for more than four decades, but for much of that time, there’s been broad disagreement over the parameters of that right.
The parents of a teenage boy in Colorado diagnosed with attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism have challenged the Douglas County School District over the services provided to their son. The central legal question–one that has divided courts on the appellate level for years–is what level of service satisfies the concept of an “appropriate” education.
Attorneys for the parents, along with counsel representing the U.S. Department of Education, have argued that under the Individual with Disabilities Education Act, schools are required to establish education plans for students with disabilities–or SWD–that provide a “meaningful educational benefit.”
Officials from Douglas County schools, located just outside of Colorado Springs, say Congress provided no specific test as to the level of education SWD are to be provided. They point to a 1982 Supreme Court precedent that required individual education plans–IEPs–only need to give “some educational benefit,” or a “basic floor of opportunity.”
Late last month, the justices agreed to hear the case although it is unclear when arguments might be scheduled given the backlog of issues since the death of Justice Antonin Scalia.
“The high court’s decision could have major impact on the way schools draft IEPs for special needs students,” said Sarah Garcia, partner at the education law firm of Lozano Smith, in a news brief released last week.
Generally, FAPE as defined by IDEA means a specially designed education that meets the unique needs of the student and comes at no cost to the parents.
But in the 1982 case, the Supreme Court conditioned the right by saying that an EIP must be “reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits.” The court declined to provide any test to determine the adequacy of the educational benefit because of the “infinite variations” in the capabilities of each child.
Based on that ruling, school officials have prevailed in a series of rulings including a 2015 decision from the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
In an amicus brief filed in the Douglas case in August, attorneys representing the Obama administration have asked the Supreme Court to reverse the 10th District ruling and clarify that the IDEA requires a far more robust level of service. They point to the standard definition of “appropriate,” which in most dictionaries is defined as specially suitable, fit or proper.
“No parent or educator in America would say that a child has received an ‘appropriate’ or a ‘specially suitable’ or ‘proper’ education ‘in the circumstances’ when all the child has received are benefits that are barely more than trivial,” federal attorneys argued. “That is particularly true when a child is capable of achieving much more. Taken to its logical conclusion, the ‘merely … more than de minimis’ test could lead to results that Congress plainly did not intend when it required an ‘appropriate’ education.”
Attorneys representing the school say that the Obama administration is begging the question.
“To the extent that (IDEA) subjects the states to any substantive standard, it calls for no more than a rational-basis-type review to ensure that the education to which access is provided is reasonably calculated to confer more than a de minimis educational benefit,” they wrote.
IDEA, they argue, seeks primarily to make public education available to SWD. “Thus, for over thirty years, this Court has held that if a state provides a program reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits, then it has complied with the obligations imposed by Congress.”