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Appropriately Ambitious:

A Special Education Legal Blog 

“But [the student’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”

Endrew F. v. Douglas Cnty. Scl. Dist. RE-1, 137 S.Ct. 988, 1000 (2017).

  • Writer's picturePatrick G. Radel, Esq.

Supreme Special Ed - What Does the Court Say?

The Supreme Court made big news (& history) Monday with its ruling on employment discrimination, with more major decisions to come early next week.

As the final word on many issues that affect how Americans live, learn, work, and worship, the Supreme Court is a powerful player in our democracy. What has the Court said about the rights of students with disabilities? What might it say in the future? What does this mean for students, parents, and educators?

A short summary and some suggestions.


“Separate Educational Facilities are Inherently Unequal”

In 1953, the Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Bd. of Education that racial segregation in public schools is unconstitutional.

For more than 50 years following the Civil War, the Court permitted racial segregation as long as the separate facilities were substantially “equal.”

Brown unanimously overturned “separate but equal” in public education because “Separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The Court based its ruling on social science research that segregation harmed the educational and personal growth of African American students and denied them important benefits that could only be achieved through integrated education.

As discussed below, although Brown isn’t directly about special education, its principles can (and should) apply to students with disabilities.

“Sufficient to Confer Some Educational Benefit”

Congress passed the law now called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1975. IDEA says students with disabilities are to receive a “free appropriate public education” (FAPE).

IDEA contains detailed procedures for identifying, evaluating, and educating students with disabilities. However, Congress didn't say exactly what an “appropriate” education was supposed to be and wasn't clear about what happens if the school follows the letter of the law, but fails to create a program that benefits the student.

Did Congress intend to guarantee that students with disabilities receive a specific level of educational benefit? Or was Congress just establishing procedures to improve outcomes, with schools protected from lawsuits if they check the right boxes? Is IDEA purely procedural or does it give students actual rights?

The Supreme Court ruled on these questions for the first time in 1982. In Bd. of Ed. v. Rowley, the Court held that IDEA means schools must follow the procedural rules and provide a program “sufficient to confer some educational benefit” upon the student.

According to Rowley, a FAPE means “personalized instruction with sufficient support services to permit the child to benefit educationally from that instruction.” Schools are not required “to maximize each handicapped child’s potential,” but must develop a program “reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits.”

“Appropriately Ambitious”

For more than 30 years after Rowley, parents and schools argued about what it meant to say that students with disabilities were entitled to a program reasonably calculated to provide “some educational benefit.” Many courts set a very low bar and found that schools were following the law even if the student made barely any progress – the legal phrase was “merely more than de minimis.”

In 2017, the Supreme Court gave students and parents a major victory in Endrew F. v. Douglas County.

The Court unanimously rejected the “merely more than de minimis” standard, stating bluntly: “The IDEA demands more.” The Supreme Court ruled that IDEA requires an educational program that is “appropriately ambitious” in light of the child’s circumstances. As the Court explained, “[t]he goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”


Radel's Ruminations

1. Why So Much Segregation?

The Supreme Court didn’t overrule school segregation in Brown v. Bd. of Ed. because the law changed. The Court found that segregation had become unlawful because decades of research showed that being placed in segregated schools was harmful to the educational and social development of minority students and denied them important benefits that could only be found in an integrated school.

IDEA requires that students with disabilities be educated with their typical peers “to the maximum extent appropriate.”

When a school wants to remove a student to a separate setting, the law requires us to ask whether this is appropriate by balancing the benefits of removal against the benefits of inclusion and considering whether the supports and services the student needs can be provided in a general education classroom.

IDEA was passed in 1975; Rowley was decided in 1982. We now have more than four decades of research showing that the educational and social-emotional benefits of inclusion are enormous, while self-contained outcomes are often quite poor. We have years of experience providing supports to students with disabilities within the general education classroom, using new technology and teaching methods to meet students where they are, rather than sending them to a separate space. (We also have research showing that inclusive education produces better outcomes for all students, not just those identified as students with disabilities).

Then why are so many students placed in segregated special education with so little consideration as to whether it is truly appropriate? Why are so many students with disabilities forced to face feelings of inferiority and shame and denied the right to live, learn, and laugh with their typical peers?

Informed, serious consideration should lead to the conclusion that separate special education facilities are inherently inappropriate. Let's insist on inclusive education for all students and look forward to the day when students with disabilities have their own Brown decision to celebrate.

2. Let’s Get “Appropriately Ambitious”

Endrew was a major victory for parents and students – a unanimous ruling recognizing that ALL students have the right to a meaningful education and rejecting the notion that trivial progress for students with disabilities is acceptable, appropriate, or lawful.

However, we can’t create “appropriately ambitious” educational programs unless we do a good job assessing needs, creating goals, and measuring progress. In particular, we need (a) an accurate assessment of the student’s needs, (b) clear, measurable goals directed toward skills that allow the student to be involved in, and make progress in, general education, and (c) reliable data collection that lets us know whether progress is being made.

Then why don't we think carefully about student needs? Why are goals often the last item discussed at CSE meetings? Why is data collection often sporadic and sloppy?

It’s great that the Supreme Court says “IDEA demands more,” but these will just be letters in a lawbook unless parents and educators demand more by insisting upon better goals and meaningful data collection.


For legal education only.  This does not constitute legal advice or establish an attorney-client relationship.

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