On Wednesday, the United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. The case concerns a fourth grade student with autism named Endrew F., whose parents enrolled him in a private school specializing in autism for which they sought reimbursement from their school district in Colorado. The district argued that they shouldn’t have to pay because in his prior public school program Endrew had made “some” educational progress. The parents’ attorneys argued that Endrew was entitled to a “meaningful” educational benefit.
Courts throughout the country are divided on how much benefit must be offered in order for a school district to satisfy the requirements of providing a child a free appropriate public education (FAPE) under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). For example, in the Second Circuit (Connecticut, New York and Vermont), school districts are required to offer a program that is likely to result in a benefit that is “more than merely trivial.” Now the Supreme Court is grappling with this critical issue.
We believe that Endrew F. is the most important special education case to come before the Supreme Court in over twenty-five years. Its outcome will have an enormous impact on every one of our clients.
Five senior attorneys from our office traveled to Washington, D.C. to listen to the oral arguments. The courtroom was crowded with parent and school district attorneys from all over the country. We sat near the petitioners, Endrew’s mother and father, and their presence by our side served as a constant reminder of our own clients back in New York for whom the outcome of this decision is so personal.
The debate between the attorneys was lively. The Solicitor General spoke on behalf of the U.S. Department of Education and, as he had articulated in the administration’s amicus brief, asked the Court to rule in favor of a higher standard than the Colorado school district was defending. The Justices asked questions of both sides, with a clear focus on how to set forth a clear standard for all students, regardless of the severity of their disability.
Justice Alito distilled the core issue: that the court needs to find the perfect word with the right nuance to define the level of benefit required. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito joked about the need to come up with a standard that doesn’t require musical notation or the proper intonation (“some” versus “some”).
Reading the tea leaves is difficult, but we are cautiously optimistic. We left feeling that the Court will set forth a standard that is easier to understand and apply, and one that is likely to hold school districts to a higher standard than what exists now.