Education Law

IDEA and Special Ed: What Is “Appropriate Education” for Students With Disabilities?

By E.A. Gjelten, Author and Editor
The U.S. Supreme Court has said that public schools must provide special education that’s “appropriately ambitious” in light of each student’s individual circumstances.

The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires that all eligible children with disabilities receive “free appropriate public education” (known as “FAPE”) tailored to their particular needs. Schools, parents, and special ed advocates have been arguing for years over what an appropriate education actually means. In an important decision in 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court offered its latest take on the issue.

What the Law Says About FAPE

The IDEA defines FAPE as special education and related support services that:

  • are provided for the child at no charge
  • meet state educational standards
  • include appropriate K-12 education, and
  • follow an individualized education program (IEP) that’s been developed for the child and meets the legal requirements.

(20 U.S. C. § 1401(9).)

In some states, the standards for special ed basically duplicate federal law. Other states go further, spelling out goals for special needs students in various academic areas, life skills, and extracurricular activities.

Still, the IDEA itself leaves two important questions open:

  • Does education mean only academic work?
  • How do you measure what’s “appropriate” for each child?

On the first question, most court decisions and state laws have recognized that special ed involves more than academics and grades. Your child’s IEP should also include goals in areas like social and behavioral skills, communication and linguistics, mobility, and other daily life activities. There’s been more disagreement on the second question, but schools now have clearer guidance from the highest court in the country.

The Supreme Court Raises the “Appropriate” Bar

In a unanimous decision issued in May 2017, the Supreme Court set out a higher standard for deciding whether a school has been providing a student with appropriate special ed. Until then, some courts had interpreted an older Supreme Court decision to mean that an IEP was adequate as long as it was meant to provide something more than a minimum educational benefit for a child with disabilities. But in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School Dist. RE-1, 137 S.Ct. 988 (2017), the Court ruled that schools must offer special ed programs that are “appropriately ambitious” in light of the students’ individual circumstances. For most children with disabilities who are placed in regular classes, this means a goal of advancing from grade to grade. While that may not be possible for students with more severe disabilities, the Court said they should still have “the chance to meet challenging objectives.”

The justices made it clear that they wouldn’t try to give a precise definition of what “appropriate” progress would look like in every case. It’s up to school officials, the IEP team, and the parents to work that out, taking into account the individual student’s needs and strengths. As the court emphasized, however, the IDEA isn’t “satisfied with barely more than de minimis progress” for students who can’t function in regular classes.

Talking With a Lawyer

If you believe that the school district isn’t providing the resources and programs your child needs to reach appropriately challenging goals, consider speaking with a special education lawyer about your options. The IDEA and its companion regulations are complicated and can be difficult to understand. An attorney who’s experienced in this field should be able to explain how the law applies in your situation. A lawyer can also advise or represent you in negotiations with school officials, IEP meetings, administrative proceedings to challenge school decisions, and—if it becomes necessary—lawsuits against the school district. (For more details, see our article on when you need a special education lawyer.)

Go to the main FAQ page on special education and the IDEA.

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