Endrew: Victory or Defeat
In an unanimous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a merely “more than de minimis” academic growth would not meet the requirement of a free, appropriate education (FAPE) for children with disabilities as mandated by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Some courts, specifically the 10th Circuit, had ruled otherwise.
On the surface this appears to be news that all advocates for children with disabilities could cheer. Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the Court, said that the “de minimis” standard could hardly be said to be any education at all. Unfortunately, when Judge Gorsuch (yes, the same Judge Gorsuch that was just elevated to the Supreme Court) said in the opinion of the 10th Circuit that “merely” de minimis would be enough, panic spread throughout the advocate world. The Endrew decision changes that. There are basically three reactions to this ruling.
Advocates for children with disabilities are basically cheering the ruling. Ever since the Rowley decision there has been disagreement on “how low can you go” in student achievement and still be considered to be delivering an appropriate education for a child. So, the unanimous answer of not de minimis is good.
But the Endrew decision went on to further describe what should be expected for children with disabilities who were fully integrated in a general education classroom and for those who were not. For those fully integrated, Roberts said these children by virtue of their full integration should be expected to get passing grades and to be able to advance from grade to grade. But he recognized that for those children not fully integrated, advancement from grade to grade might not be a reasonable expectation. The opinion went on to state, that for those children the IEP needed to be “appropriately ambitious” with “challenging objectives”. How very reasonable! How terribly devastating! For the first time, a judicial review has recognized that children have differing abilities and, therefore, should have differing expectations. Squirrels are expected to climb trees; fish are expected to swim. There are many among the special ed community who want squirrels to swim and fish to swing from tree branches. The Court's decision, in my view, both recognizes and respects differences. More importantly, there is now a standard for fully integrating kids in a general classroom- they should be able to advance from grade to grade and get passing grades. Advocates can use this standard to avoid just dumping kids into general ed where the curriculum may not be appropriate to their needs.
A third reaction to the ruling reflects the disappointment of the Endrew’s parents. It was their hope that the Court would set a standard that required “appropriate” to mean “to achieve academic success, attain self-sufficiency, and contribute to society.” These are wonderful goals for all kids, with or without disabilities. Problem is neither schools nor families can deliver perfection for all kids. So while we should continue to shoot for the moon, we need to be grateful that the stars are within reach.
This new standard does not totally please anyone. That must mean it is pretty good.