Back in January, I wrote about Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. The US Supreme Court recently reached a unanimous decision in the case, siding with the family. Fry v. Napoleon Community Schools caught national attention earlier this year, partly because of a cute dog. This latest decision became attached to Neil Gorsuch’s Senate testimony per his ruling in a similar case. Both cases briefly stirred headlines for reasons other than their importance in special education.
Endrew F. eclipses Fry in potential magnitude. The core of the case is educational benefit. Must schools ensure students with IEPs simply make some measurable progress, or must they prove this progress is meaningful? The Supreme Court has found something closer to the latter, with the ruling mandating schools must prove students are making appropriate progress per each student’s circumstance. Although the difference might seem subtle, the scope is enormous. Future special education teachers will study this case as undergraduates.
“Appropriate progress” will be the focus of case-by-case deliberation, but it’s a leap from the previous requirement of schools to demonstrate discernible growth within a student’s program. The new implication suggests there is an acceptable range of progress for each student. Defining this range could be difficult. Some families will reject any deterministic range based on evaluation findings that the schools offer. Some might interpret “appropriate progress” as needing to be aligned with age and grade level progress. Such a conception of progress would be ideal, but in many cases would belie the range of abilities that led to a special education evaluation. Regardless, the built-in controversy seems to forecast a bumper crop of due process hearings.
As with Fry, advocates have heralded the decision in Endrew F. as a victory for students with disabilities. I wonder if it will be. My prediction is the same schools that currently struggle to meet the requirements of IDEA and of existing IEPs will continue to struggle. Now families will have more leverage to come after these schools for compensatory education when students fail to make “appropriate (and possibly unrealistic) progress.” I suspect this ruling will do at least as much to create additional settlements as it will to help students with disabilities get better at reading, writing, or doing math. It certainly will increase pressure on schools and might set some up to lose.
Any thoughts from readers? How will IEP teams define “appropriate?” To what degree will this decision shift special education in practice and even in concept? Does anyone else see this as a path to increased litigation? Share your insights in the comments.