In March of 2017, by a unanimous 8-0 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court mandated a far more robust, outcome-oriented FAPE standard. In Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District RE 1, 137 S.Ct. 988 (2017), the high court articulated a new FAPE standard, clarifying that a FAPE is required to be “markedly more demanding” than a “more than de minimus” standard and must be “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” The Court further explained that every child is entitled to the chance to meet “challenging objectives” and that this should be accomplished by parents and school districts working together collaboratively to develop an IEP setting forth goals that are “appropriately ambitious.” A remand was ordered back to the district court so that the district court judge (who had ruled for the school district) could reconsider the record in light of the Supreme Court’s new FAPE standard.
On February 12, 2018, the district court judge (Judge Babcock) reversed himself and awarded the student full tuition reimbursement relief and transportation based on the Supreme Court’s new FAPE standard. The district court judge explained that, applying the new FAPE standard, the IEP offered to the student by his school district “…was insufficient to create an educational plan that was reasonably calculated to enable [the student] to make progress, even in light of his unique circumstances, based on the continued pattern of unambitious goals and objectives of his prior IEP’s.”
The Supreme Court’s unanimous decision in Endrew F. and the district court’s analysis on remand should help parents and school districts work together more collaboratively to design IEP’s that are “reasonably calculated” i.e. designed to promote greater levels of independence and self-sufficiency. By way of a caveat, there still is, however, no entitlement to an IEP that is designed to achieve an optimal outcome. As the high court explained in its 2017 decision, there is no entitlement to “…an education that aims to provide a child with a disability opportunities to achieve academic success, attain self-sufficiency, and contribute to society that are substantially equal to the opportunities afforded children without disabilities.” No matter. There is now much needed room for improvement between mere access to the “floor” of educational opportunity and the broader opportunities that a neurotypical child can expect. Hopefully, the Supreme Court’s decision in Endrew F. will help to meaningfully reduce that gap in the years to come.