The issue that has bedeviled parents, students, school districts, and courts since the passage of the IDEA in 1975—what constitutes a sufficient “educational benefit” under the IDEA, or how much educational benefit does the district have to provide to meet its legal mandate to provide a child with a disability an “appropriate” education.

The U.S. Supreme Court first addressed this issue in 1982 in the Rowley case.  Amy Rowley was in kindergarten, was doing well, but needed a sign language interpreter to access communication in the classroom.  Because she was doing well academically – not difficult at the kindergarten level, the Supreme Court ruled against her concluding that under the IDEA a school district need only  “open the door of public education to handicapped children”  rather than guarantee any particular level of education once inside.”

When the IDEA was re-authorized in 2007, Congress appeared to expand the Rowley standard of educational benefit, noting that implementation of the IDEA was “impeded by low expectations” and that children with disabilities are entitled to “high expectations” and, “to the maximum extent possible,” to meet the challenging expectations that are established for all children.  Other, lower courts have either agreed with Rowley or expanded – educational benefit is measured against the child’s abilities.

On March 22, 2017, in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, the U.S. Supreme Court in an unanimous decision ruled that an autistic child who had moved from grade to grade but appeared to have made questionable, actual progress was entitled to an education that provided only de minimis [minimal] progress.

The key findings by the Supreme Court:  1) a child’s IEP/program must be “appropriately ambitious” and “calculated to allow a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances” and 2) should be measured against the broader requirement that when a child is in a regular classroom Rowley requires grade level advancement.  If a child in a regular classroom is entitled to educational benefit as reflected in grade advancement, other children in special education in other placements are entitled to similarly positive opportunities.

While the Supreme Court noted the expertise of local educators in framing the issue of appropriate and did not “elaborate” on what “appropriate progress will look like from case to case,” the court was clear in elevating the Rowley standard for as it said, a merely minimal education is ‘hardly an education at all” and is aimed “so low” as to be “tantamount to ‘sitting idly…awaiting the time when they were old enough to drop out.’” While there is still and likely always will be vagueness about any language that tries to define “appropriate,” a phrase like “appropriately ambitious” to allow for progress is indeed a higher standard than that established by Rowley.

As you plan for your next IEP, a key will be that your child is entitled by law to a program that is sufficiently “ambitious” as to allow progress consistent with your child’s circumstances. In reality what does that mean?  Where is your child now in all the areas of need, what would be a reasonable and appropriate level of improvement and what does s/he need in program, services and strategies to accomplish that “ambitious” advancement?