Endrew F. v. Douglas Cnty. Sch. Dist. RE-1

Decision Date22 March 2017
Docket NumberNo. 15–827.,15–827.
Citation137 S.Ct. 988,197 L.Ed.2d 335
Parties ENDREW F., a minor, by and through his parents and next friends, JOSEPH F. and Jennifer F., Petitioner v. DOUGLAS COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT RE–1.
CourtU.S. Supreme Court

Jeffrey L. Fisher, Stanford, CA, for Petitioner.

Irv Gornstein for the United States as amicus curiae, by special leave of the Court, supporting the Petitioner.

Neal K. Katyal, Washington, DC, for Respondent.

Jeffrey L. Fisher, David T. Goldberg, Pamela S. Karlan, Supreme Court Litigation Clinic, William S. Koski, Youth and Education Law Project, Stanford Law School, Stanford, CA, Jack D. Robinson, Spies, Powers & Robinson, P.C., Denver, CO, Brian Wolfman, Wyatt G. Sassman, Georgetown Law Appellate Courts Immersion Clinic, Washington, DC, for Petitioners.

W. Stuart Stuller, Caplan and Earnest LLC, Boulder, CO, Daniel D. Domenico, Kittredge LLC, Denver, CO, William E. Trachman, Castle Rock, Neal Kumar Katyal, Frederick Liu, Eugene A. Sokoloff, Mitchell P. Reich, Hogan Lovells US LLP, Washington, DC, for Respondent.

Chief Justice ROBERTS delivered the opinion of the Court.

Thirty-five years ago, this Court held that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act establishes a substantive right to a "free appropriate public education" for certain children with disabilities. Board of Ed. of Hendrick Hudson Central School Dist., Westchester Cty. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 102 S.Ct. 3034, 73 L.Ed.2d 690 (1982). We declined, however, to endorse any one standard for determining "when handicapped children are receiving sufficient educational benefits to satisfy the requirements of the Act." Id., at 202, 102 S.Ct. 3034. That "more difficult problem" is before us today. Ibid.

I
A

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA or Act) offers States federal funds to assist in educating children with disabilities. 84 Stat. 175, as amended, 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq. ; see Arlington Central School Dist. Bd. of Ed. v. Murphy, 548 U.S. 291, 295, 126 S.Ct. 2455, 165 L.Ed.2d 526 (2006). In exchange for the funds, a State pledges to comply with a number of statutory conditions. Among them, the State must provide a free appropriate public education—a FAPE, for short—to all eligible children. § 1412(a)(1).

A FAPE, as the Act defines it, includes both "special education" and "related services." § 1401(9). "Special education" is "specially designed instruction ... to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability"; "related services" are the support services "required to assist a child ... to benefit from" that instruction. §§ 1401(26), (29). A State covered by the IDEA must provide a disabled child with such special education and related services "in conformity with the [child's] individualized education program," or IEP. § 1401(9)(D).

The IEP is "the centerpiece of the statute's education delivery system for disabled children." Honig v. Doe, 484 U.S. 305, 311, 108 S.Ct. 592, 98 L.Ed.2d 686 (1988). A comprehensive plan prepared by a child's "IEP Team" (which includes teachers, school officials, and the child's parents), an IEP must be drafted in compliance with a detailed set of procedures. § 1414(d)(1)(B) (internal quotation marks omitted). These procedures emphasize collaboration among parents and educators and require careful consideration of the child's individual circumstances. § 1414. The IEP is the means by which special education and related services are "tailored to the unique needs" of a particular child. Rowley, 458 U.S., at 181, 102 S.Ct. 3034.

The IDEA requires that every IEP include "a statement of the child's present levels of academic achievement and functional performance," describe "how the child's disability affects the child's involvement and progress in the general education curriculum," and set out "measurable annual goals, including academic and functional goals," along with a "description of how the child's progress toward meeting" those goals will be gauged. §§ 1414(d)(1)(A)(i)(I)-(III). The IEP must also describe the "special education and related services ... that will be provided" so that the child may "advance appropriately toward attaining the annual goals" and, when possible, "be involved in and make progress in the general education curriculum." § 1414(d)(1)(A)(i)(IV).

Parents and educators often agree about what a child's IEP should contain. But not always. When disagreement arises, parents may turn to dispute resolution procedures established by the IDEA. The parties may resolve their differences informally, through a "[p]reliminary meeting," or, somewhat more formally, through mediation. §§ 1415(e), (f)(1)(B)(i). If these measures fail to produce accord, the parties may proceed to what the Act calls a "due process hearing" before a state or local educational agency. §§ 1415(f)(1)(A), (g). And at the conclusion of the administrative process, the losing party may seek redress in state or federal court. § 1415(i)(2)(A).

B

This Court first addressed the FAPE requirement in Rowley .1 Plaintiff Amy Rowley was a first grader with impaired hearing. Her school district offered an IEP under which Amy would receive instruction in the regular classroom and spend time each week with a special tutor and a speech therapist. The district proposed that Amy's classroom teacher speak into a wireless transmitter and that Amy use an FM hearing aid designed to amplify her teacher's words; the district offered to supply both components of this system. But Amy's parents argued that the IEP should go further and provide a sign-language interpreter in all of her classes. Contending that the school district's refusal to furnish an interpreter denied Amy a FAPE, Amy's parents initiated administrative proceedings, then filed a lawsuit under the Act. Rowley, 458 U.S., at 184–185, 102 S.Ct. 3034.

The District Court agreed that Amy had been denied a FAPE. The court acknowledged that Amy was making excellent progress in school: She was "perform[ing] better than the average child in her class" and "advancing easily from grade to grade." Id., at 185, 102 S.Ct. 3034 (internal quotation marks omitted). At the same time, Amy "under[stood] considerably less of what goes on in class than she could if she were not deaf." Ibid. (internal quotation marks omitted). Concluding that "it has been left entirely to the courts and the hearings officers to give content to the requirement of an ‘appropriate education,’ " 483 F.Supp. 528, 533 (S.D.N.Y.1980), the District Court ruled that Amy's education was not "appropriate" unless it provided her "an opportunity to achieve [her] full potential commensurate with the opportunity provided to other children. " Rowley, 458 U.S., at 185–186, 102 S.Ct. 3034 (internal quotation marks omitted). The Second Circuit agreed with this analysis and affirmed.

In this Court, the parties advanced starkly different understandings of the FAPE requirement. Amy's parents defended the approach of the lower courts, arguing that the school district was required to provide instruction and services that would provide Amy an "equal educational opportunity" relative to children without disabilities. Id., at 198, 102 S.Ct. 3034 (internal quotation marks omitted). The school district, for its part, contended that the IDEA "did not create substantive individual rights"; the FAPE provision was instead merely aspirational. Brief for Petitioners in Rowley, O.T. 1981, No. 80–1002, pp. 28, 41.

Neither position carried the day. On the one hand, this Court rejected the view that the IDEA gives "courts carte blanche to impose upon the States whatever burden their various judgments indicate should be imposed." Rowley, 458 U.S., at 190, n. 11, 102 S.Ct. 3034. After all, the statutory phrase "free appropriate public education" was expressly defined in the Act, even if the definition "tend[ed] toward the cryptic rather than the comprehensive." Id., at 188, 102 S.Ct. 3034. This Court went on to reject the "equal opportunity" standard adopted by the lower courts, concluding that "free appropriate public education" was a phrase "too complex to be captured by the word ‘equal’ whether one is speaking of opportunities or services." Id., at 199, 102 S.Ct. 3034. The Court also viewed the standard as "entirely unworkable," apt to require "impossible measurements and comparisons" that courts were ill suited to make. Id., at 198, 102 S.Ct. 3034.

On the other hand, the Court also rejected the school district's argument that the FAPE requirement was actually no requirement at all. Id., at 200, 102 S.Ct. 3034. Instead, the Court carefully charted a middle path. Even though "Congress was rather sketchy in establishing substantive requirements" under the Act, id., at 206, 102 S.Ct. 3034 the Court nonetheless made clear that the Act guarantees a substantively adequate program of education to all eligible children, id., at 200–202, 207, 102 S.Ct. 3034 ; see id., at 193, n. 15, 102 S.Ct. 3034 (describing the "substantive standard ... implicit in the Act"). We explained that this requirement is satisfied, and a child has received a FAPE, if the child's IEP sets out an educational program that is "reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits." Id., at 207, 102 S.Ct. 3034. For children receiving instruction in the regular classroom, this would generally require an IEP "reasonably calculated to enable the child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade." Id., at 204, 102 S.Ct. 3034 ; see also id., at 203, n. 25, 102 S.Ct. 3034.

In view of Amy Rowley's excellent progress and the "substantial" suite of specialized instruction and services offered in her IEP, we concluded that her program satisfied the FAPE requirement. Id., at 202, 102 S.Ct. 3034. But we went no further. Instead, we expressly "confine[d] our analysis" to the facts of the case before us. Ibid. Observing that the Act requires States to "educate a wide spectrum" of children with disabilities and that "the...

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