We’ve all heard it before—schools only must provide a “serviceable Chevrolet,” not a Cadillac, to afford a student a free appropriate public education (FAPE). The analogy is often associated with the seminal U.S. Supreme Court case known as Rowley, which said that the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) requires only a “basic floor of opportunity,” not that schools “maximize” a child’s educational potential. The “Chevy vs. Cadillac” analogy was coined and used by lower courts after Rowley, and suggests that schools need only provide a bare minimum of services to afford a student FAPE. However, the Supreme Court in Endrew F. recently rejected such a “minimalist” interpretation of the IDEA. Since then, we have wondered about the continued applicability of the Chevy vs. Cadillac analogy—does it still have a place in special education law after Endrew F? We think not, and in this blog post we offer a better analogy for school leaders looking for a key to providing students FAPE. If you’d like to learn more, keep reading.

The Cases

The 1982 decision Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley was the first time that the Supreme Court addressed the IDEA, and yet we still regularly discuss the decision today. In Rowley, the Court held that schools must provide IDEA eligible students with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) “reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits.” The Rowley case involved a student who was in a regular education classroom, and the Court held that because the student was receiving higher than average grades in the class and was advancing from grade to grade, she was receiving FAPE even though the school refused to provide the student a sign-language interpreter. The court refused to provide a more general test that might apply in other contexts.

Eleven years later, a court of appeals addressing a Tennessee case took the holding of Rowley one step further. In Doe v. Board of Educ. of Tullahoma City Schools, the parents of a student with a neurological impairment unilaterally placed him at a private school and sought tuition from the school district. In finding in favor of the school district, the court explained that the law requires the school to provide:

. . . the educational equivalent of a serviceable Chevrolet to every handicapped student. [His parents], however, demand[ ] that the . . . school system provide a Cadillac . . . . We suspect that the Chevrolet offered . . . is in fact a much nicer model than that offered to the average . . . student. Be that as it may, we hold that the Board is not required to provide a Cadillac, and that the proposed IEP is reasonably calculated to provide educational benefits to appellant, and is therefore in compliance with the requirements of the IDEA.

Since then, the analogy has been a favorite of school attorneys and school districts, and has been cited in numerous court and due process decisions.

Then, in 2017 the Supreme Court decided Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District RE–1, in which parents of a child with autism sought private school tuition reimbursement for an alleged denial of FAPE. Whereas Rowley had addressed only students fully integrated into a regular classroom, Endrew F. tackled the question of what standard should be used for FAPE for a student who is not fully integrated in the regular classroom. Something more than de minimis progress must be required, the court said. Whereas Rowley declined to establish a general test for determining the adequacy of educational benefits for students receiving special education, the court in Endrew F. provided such a general standard. To meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, the court said, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.

Chevy vs. Caddilac: Where Are We Now?

 After Andrew F, it’s questionable whether the old Chevy vs. Cadiallac analogy is the best. Although Rowley’s use of language like “basic floor” and “some progress” was interpreted by some to suggest that schools need only provide a bare minimum of services to students, Endrew F. closed the door to that interpretation. And the idea that providing every student with an IEP that is the functional equivalent of a barely working, merely adequate Chevrolet seems awfully similar to the bare minimum theory of special education. Regardless of whether the analogy has any life after Endrew F., there is no question that the analogy is used too often by those in the special education sphere.

So what is the alternative? We recommend that schools think of FAPE as a buffet, where each student is provided the specific options they need to be healthy and grow. The buffet doesn’t have to be Fogo de Chão or another higher end option, it can be Shoney’s or even the buffet at your local hospital or high school. Nor does each student have to be allowed to take an unfair share of the offerings on the buffet than that available to other students. But the offerings would provide enough variety that students with different needs, including those with IEPs, have enough to thrive. We believe that this analogy, rather than the Chevy vs. Cadillac analogy, will best guide school leaders in providing students FAPE.