A recent decision from the First Circuit Court of Appeals (the highest federal court in the jurisdictions of Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Puerto Rico, and Rhode Island) rebuffed attempts by a student’s parents to heighten the “[f]ree appropriate public education” (FAPE) standard under Endrew F. The court also applied the same standard used by the Seventh Circuit, which has jurisdiction over Illinois, to analyze a claim that a school district failed to provide a student a FAPE in the “[l]east restrictive environment” (LRE). The decision is therefore a useful read for school leaders in Illinois and beyond. Don’t miss the key takeaways for school leaders at the end.
The student in the case, C.D., has borderline intellectual functioning and significant deficits in language ability. The summers before C.D.’s ninth and tenth grade years, the district presented C.D.’s parents with a proposed IEP that placed C.D. in regular classrooms for her elective courses but in a self-contained special education program designed for students with cognitive and communication deficits for her academic courses. The program offers a significantly modified curriculum.
The district considered other placement options, including the parents’ suggestion that C.D. be placed in a regular classroom setting with the help of private tutors. The school did not allow private tutors to teach students, however, and was concerned that larger class sizes and more advanced content in high school would make it difficult for C.D. to access the general education curriculum.
C.D.’s parents rejected the IEP both years, saying that the self-contained program was an overly restrictive environment and that C.D.’s placement there would “hinder” her academic and social growth. They enrolled C.D. at a private school that specializes in educating students with disabilities.
Prior to C.D.’s junior year, based on a new evaluation and reports of C.D.’s performance at the private school, the district proposed an IEP placing C.D. in a mix of the self-contained classes, and general education classes. C.D.’s parents again rejected the IEP and continued to send C.D. to the private school. The parents then filed for due process, seeking reimbursement for at least three years of C.D.’s private school education.
Endrew F Argument
After losing their due process hearing, C.D.’s parents filed suit in federal court. They argued, among other things, that after Endrew F., “courts must ask not only whether an IEP offers meaningful educational progress, but also, separately, whether the IEP’s objectives are ambitious and challenging.”
The First Circuit disagreed, noting that under both Endrew F. and prior court precedent, a court evaluating whether an IEP offers a FAPE must determine whether the IEP was reasonably calculated to confer a meaningful educational benefit in light of the child’s circumstances. Applying that standard, the court determined that the district reasonably concluded that, given C.D.’s diagnosed intellectual disability and serious language deficits, she could be expected to make meaningful progress in the self-contained program and general education electives.
The parents also argued that the school’s proposed placements for C.D. violated IDEA’s LRE mandate. They argued that the court should use the test used by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal (the Daniel R.R. standard). That two-step methodology first asks “whether education in the regular classroom, with the use of supplementary aids and services, can be achieved satisfactorily.” If the child cannot, the court then asks “whether the school has mainstreamed the child to the maximum extent appropriate.” In answering the first question, Daniel R.R. requires consideration of a number of factors, including “whether the district has made reasonable efforts to accommodate the child in a regular classroom; the benefits, both academic and non-academic, available to the child in a regular class compared to the benefits, both academic and non-academic, available in a more restricted class; and the effects of inclusion on other children in the regular classroom.”
The First Circuit joined the Seventh Circuit in eschewing the Daniel R.R. test, noting that the text of the IDEA and the circuit’s own caselaw provides a sufficient framework to determine if the LRE mandate has been met. Specifically, the IDEA provides:
To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities . . . are educated with children who are not disabled, and special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability of a child is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily.
Under first circuit case law, the court then “weighs” the preference for mainstreaming “in concert with the” FAPE mandate, considering whether mainstreaming outweighs the educational improvements that could be attained in a more restrictive (that is, nonmainstream) environment. The district was not required to consider whether C.D. could have been educated in the regular classroom considering “the whole range of supplemental aids and services,” as the parents had argued. Here, the district considered many placement options and the impact of supplementary aids and services and reasonably concluded that because of C.D.’s particular disability a more restrictive environment was appropriate.
While mainstreaming has benefits for students who can access curriculum with accommodations and supports, students with more significant disabilities require individualized instruction that meets their needs and provides them with an opportunity to make meaningful progress. While it is important to consider options posed by parents, if they are not the best fit for a student, teams should choose the option that is most appropriate for the student.