Background: Free Appropriate Public Education under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) should be well-known to parents of children with disabilities. IDEA is the federal law that requires state public schools to offer special education and support services to students with disabilities. In exchange for federal funding, school districts must provide “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) in the “least restrictive environment” (LRE) to children with disabilities.

FAPE is typically accomplished by implementing an Individualized Education Program (IEP) based on a particular student’s needs.

Although the purpose of the law is clear, courts have struggled to come up with clear definitions for FAPE and LRE, often allowing school districts to get away with providing minimal assistance to special needs children.

The Supreme Court Imposes a Heightened Standard for FAPE

In the Endrew F. case of 2017, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision holding school districts to a higher standard when it comes to providing FAPE to students with disabilities. Schools can no longer meet the IDEA requirements by providing the bare minimum of support services. Instead, public schools must provide a plan that is “reasonably calculated to enable each child to make progress appropriate for that child’s circumstances. In the case of a child fully integrated in the regular classroom, that means grade advancement. In the case of a child not fully integrated in the regular classroom and not able to achieve on grade level, the Supreme Court ruled that the child’s educational program “must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances … The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”

The First Circuit Court Takes on FAPE and LRE

The First Circuit Court of Appeals, which has jurisdiction over Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, and Puerto Rico, recently took another look at the FAPE and LRE standards, ultimately ruling in favor of the school district.

In C.D. v. Natick Public School District, which was decided in May of this year, the Court ruled that an IEP provided by Natick Public Schools to the Plaintiff was adequate because it was “reasonably calculated to confer a meaningful educational benefit.” Yet, Endrew F. nowhere mentions “meaningful educational benefit” as a standard for a FAPE, nor “reasonably calculated to confer” said benefit as the standard for an IEP. The First Circuit acknowledged that Endrew F. defined “progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances” with terms including “challenging” and “ambitious,” but then somehow relegated those terms to a “sub-inquiry” that might be required in some circumstances, and nonetheless maintained that the First Circuit’s “meaningful educational benefit” … nowhere mentioned in Endrew F. … is the standard for a FAPE.

Having apparently dispensed with the United States Supreme Court’s unanimous directive, the First Circuit then deferred to the “expertise” of the school district, meaning an automatic loss for the plaintiffs.

The C.D. case also involved the issue of LRE, on which the Court again sided with the school district. 

Circuit courts in other parts of the country apply a two-step analysis when deciding the question of LRE: first, can education in a regular classroom be achieved? Second, has the child been mainstreamed as much as possible? The First Circuit Court decided not to use this two-step process. Instead, it ruled against the student, stating that courts should defer to the judgment of local educational officials.

Consequences of the First Circuit Decision and Moving Forward

The recent decision limits the burden that public schools need to meet when creating IEPs. Although Endrew F. raised the hopes of some parents that schools would have to provide ambitious and challenging plans, this does not appear to be the case moving forward. Schools in the First Circuit will also not need to meet the heightened standard for “least restrictive environment” imposed in other parts of the country.

However, given the disagreement between different circuit courts, there is a reasonable chance that one or both of these issues will be revisited by the Supreme Court. If so, we will be sure to blog about it.