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IDEA Requires Schools to Offer an “Individualized Education Program” Reasonably Calculated to Enable a Child to Make Appropriate Progress

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by Jocelyn Campbell

This case involved a young boy diagnosed with autism who had been receiving services from an IEP from preschool through 4th grade in Douglas County School District in Colorado. The parents made the unilateral decision to enroll their son in a private school after they disagreed with the school district’s proposed IEP for 5th grade. They argued that the plan proposed goals that were too similar to the goals from the earlier years. The student and his parents filed a lawsuit in Federal District Court in Colorado stating the student was denied a free and appropriate education (FAPE) and seeking reimbursement of his tuition. The parents further argued that their son had made academic, social and emotional progress at the private school. The Federal District Court ruled the IEP proposed by Douglas County School District was substantively adequate, further clarifying the educational benefit the student was receiving from Douglas County School District was “merely more than de minimus.”

The U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous 8-0 decision in favor of the family, vacated the decision of the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals and remanded it back to apply a tougher standard. Chief Justice Roberts, writing the opinion, set the standard as one that is higher than the de minimus standard being utilized in Colorado. It requires an educational program be reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress, appropriate to and in light of the child’s individual circumstances. The Court went on to say that the reasonably calculated qualification reflects a recognition that crafting an appropriate program of education requires a prospective judgment by school officials. The Individual with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) contemplates that this fact-intensive exercise will be informed not only by the expertise of school officials but also by the input of the child’s parents or guardians. The IEP must aim to enable the child to make progress.

Finally, the Court highlights the fact that the due process rights afforded via IDEA (the nature of the IEP process), from the initial consultation through state administrative proceedings, ensures that parents and school representatives will fully air their respective opinions on the degree of progress a child’s IEP should pursue. By the time any dispute reaches court, it is expected that school authorities will have had a complete opportunity to bring their expertise and judgment to bear on areas of disagreement. A reviewing court may fairly expect those authorities to be able to offer a cogent and responsive explanation for their decisions that shows the IEP is reasonably calculated to enable the child to make progress appropriate in light of his circumstances.

Holding: To meet its substantive obligation under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a school must offer an “individualized education program” reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.

Endrew F., A Minor, By and Through His Parents and Next Friends, Joseph F. et al. v. Douglas County School District Re-1