Supreme Court Hears Oral Arguments as to What Level of Educational Benefit Schools Must Provide for Children with Disabilities

January 14, 2017


On Wednesday, January 11, 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case regarding a Colorado student with autism and ADHD whose parents placed him in a private school because they believed his public education was inadequate.


His parents filed a complaint against the Douglas County School District for reimbursement for the private school tuition and related expenses. An administrative law judge rejected the parents' request for reimbursement, determining that the school district had offered the boy a free appropriate public education (FAPE) as required under the Individuals with Disabilities 

Education Act (IDEA.) On appeal, the Federal District Court, and later, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the administrative court’s decision.


Of note is that the standard used in various circuits across the country vary. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which is the appeals court that covers western states, including California, requires that school districts provide educational benefit. This has also been called meaningful educational benefit, both of which are higher standards than the standard used by the Tenth Circuit


Before the Supreme Court is the question: What is the level of educational benefit must school districts confer on children with disabilities to provide them with FAPE as guaranteed by the IDEA?   


Analysis of the oral arguments on the Supreme Court's blog relates how the justices were dissatisfied with the Tenth Circuit's ruling that school districts can meet the requirements of federal law by providing a student with an IEP with a program that provides the child with a benefit that is more than merely de minims, or non-trivial. Some of the justices were dubious about this standard as having no basis in the court's precedent, which would enable a more stringent standard to replace it.


The attorney for the child argued that under the IDEA, a school district is required to provide a program that is reasonably calculated to provide a student with educational opportunities that are substantially equal to those offered by other students. 


An attorney who argued for the United States proposed a different standard: The IDEA requires a program that is aimed at significant educational progrsess in light of the child's circumstances. 


According to the blog, the most likely standard to replace the more than de minims standard is the one proposed the the federal government which would require school districts to offer a program aimed at significant educational progress in light of the child's circumstances. This would be a higher standard than the one presently used by the Ninth Circuit.


The Court will issue its decision in this case by this summer.


For more analysis of the case by Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, read here.


Martha Millar is a special education attorney who serves families in California.


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