Supreme Court Rejects “De Minimus” Special Education Standard

a smiling boy in a wheelchair with his older smiling sister in front of a yellow school bus

by Andy Jones
March 27, 2017

In a unanimous decision issued March 22 [PDF], the Supreme Court rejected a particularly low standard, recently used by an appellate court in a decision favoring a school district, for measuring whether schools are meeting their obligations toward helping special education students make educational progress.

The ruling represents only the second time the Supreme Court has weighed in on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act’s substantive standard, or in special education parlance, whether a school district is providing a student with a “free appropriate public education,” also known as FAPE.

As articulated by Chief Justice Roberts, the Supreme Court “carefully charted a middle path” in its prior decision on the matter, the 1982 case Board of Education v. Rowley. In that decision the Supreme Court denied that the IDEA requires schools to provide special education students an “equal education opportunity” with their peers. However, it also rejected the argument that the IDEA only provides procedural, rather than substantive, requirements, finding that a student’s Individual Education Plan must be "reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits."

In 2010, an Ohio-based family, frustrated by their son Endrew’ lack of education progress, moved their son from a public to a private school. However, when they sought reimbursement for their son's private education tuition, they were denied at the administrative level and by both the district court and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit.

The 10th Circuit interpreted the Rowley decision to find that Endrew’s public school complied with the IDEA, on the basis he was receiving educational benefits that were “merely…more than de minimus.”

With the Supreme Court’s decision, this low bar will no longer suffice.

“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,” the Supreme Court ruled. “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 National Disability Rights Network, together with 44 other disability advocates, wrote an amicus brief [PDF] on November 22, urging the Supreme Court to adopt the “equal opportunity” standard.

“Although the Court did not go as far as we would have preferred, an 8-0 decision clearly rejecting the very low standard set by the lower courts in this case should send a strong message to courts and school districts around the country that the day of low expectations for students with disabilities is over,” NDRN Executive Director Curt Decker said in a news release.

The case now returns to the district court for further hearings.

Disability Rights Washington is the designated protection and advocacy agency in Washington, and a member of the National Disability Rights Network.