Important Special Education Cases
We’ve organized important special education cases to help parents learn about their rights. The below cases each arose under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Burden of Proof
In Schaffer, the Supreme Court considered whether parents or school districts have the burden of proof in special education due process hearings. The Court determined that whichever party files a due process complaint has the burden of proof. So, if a parent files a complaint alleging a denial of FAPE, the parent must prove the denial.
Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)
Rowley is widely viewed as the landmark case in special education. In the decision, the Supreme Court identified the standard for FAPE. The court held that FAPE requires that a child’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) be designed to allow her to receive educational benefit. Since the case was decided, courts across the country have elaborated on this standard. For example, in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, courts have held that a child must be provided the opportunity to make meaningful educational benefit.
Polk put forward the standard for FAPE in the Third Circuit Court of Appeals, which encompasses Pennsylvania and New Jersey. In Polk, the court stated that the primary goals of the IDEA are to foster self-sufficiency and provide students with disabilities full educational opportunity. Given these goals, the court held that FAPE requires students to be provided an opportunity to make meaningful progress in all major areas of need.
In Ridgewood, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals offered further guidance regarding the standard for FAPE. The court found that a student’s IEP did not provide him FAPE because it failed to enable him to receive “significant learning” and “meaningful benefit.” The court rejected the Ridgewood Board of Education’s argument that the student received FAPE because his IEP provided him with “more than trivial educational benefit.” In addition, the court held that the Board failed to give adequate consideration to the student’s high intellectual potential when it crafted his IEP.
In Endrew F., the Supreme Court revisited the standard for FAPE. The question presented to the Court was: What is the level of educational benefit that school districts must confer on children with disabilities to provide them FAPE, as guaranteed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)? And the Court concluded that school districts must offer children an IEP that is reasonably calculated to enable each child to make progress appropriate for that child’s circumstances.
Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)
Oberti v. Board of Education of the Borough of Clementon (1993)
In Oberti, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals adopted a two-part test for assessing compliance with the IDEA’s LRE requirement. First, a court must consider “whether education in the regular classroom, with the use of supplementary aids and services, can be achieved satisfactorily.” Factors the court should consider in applying this prong are: (1) the steps the school district has taken to accommodate the child in a regular classroom; (2) the child’s ability to receive an educational benefit from regular education; and (3) the effect the disabled child’s presence has on the regular classroom. Second, if the court finds that placement outside of a regular classroom is necessary for the child’s educational benefit, it must evaluate “whether the school has mainstreamed the child to the maximum extent appropriate, i.e., whether the school has made efforts to include the child in school programs with nondisabled children whenever possible.”
In T.R., the Third Circuit analyzed the LRE issue in the context of preschools. The court held that a school district that does not operated a regular preschool program is not required to create one in order to create an LRE for students with disabilities. However, the district must take into account a continuum of possible alternative placement options when formulating an IEP, including placing students with disabilities in private school programs for non-disabled preschool children.
Stay Put Protection
The Supreme Court in Honig held that the “stay-put” provision of the IDEA prohibits state or local school authorities from excluding a child with a disability from the classroom for dangerous or disruptive conduct that relates to the child’s disability. (The stay-put provision requires that a child remain in his then-current placement while statutory “proceedings” to resolve a dispute about the placement are pending.)
M.R. v. Ridley School District, 744 F.3d 112 (3d Cir. 2014).
In M.R., the Third Circuit Court of Appeals held that, when a hearing officer determines that a child’s educational placement is appropriate, the child is entitled to stay put in that placement throughout all federal disputes about the placement.
Florence County School District v. Carter (1993) & Burlington School Committee v. Mass. Department of Educ. (1985)
Although Carter was decided 8 years after Burlington, these cases are often cited together; their holdings are commonly referred to as the “Carter-Burlington Test.” Courts use the Carter-Burlington Test to determine whether a parent should receive reimbursement for private school tuition under the IDEA. The Test has 3 parts:
1. Did the school district provide the student with an appropriate education?
2. If not, was the placement chosen by the parent appropriate?
3. Do the equities favor reimbursement?