What Is an "Appropriate" Education for Students with Disabilities?; The Court Will Tell Us Soon
by Jonathan D. Glater
Just how much must a school district do to support the educational opportunity of a disabled student? Just enough to enable that student to get something, anything, out of the education provided? Or enough to enable that student to thrive, to excel?
The question has confronted courts for years, as parents of disabled children have demanded that school districts do more to provide their children a “free appropriate public education.” But the meaning of this phrase, typically abbreviated as “FAPE,” has eluded precise definition. When the Supreme Court addressed the question, in Board of Education of Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (1982), a majority concluded that
[A] “free appropriate public education” consists of educational instruction specially designed to meet the unique needs of the handicapped child, supported by such services as are necessary to permit the child "to benefit" from the instruction. Almost as a checklist for adequacy under the Act, the definition also requires that such instruction and services be provided at public expense and under public supervision, meet the State's educational standards, approximate the grade levels used in the State's regular education, and comport with the child's [individualized education program – more on that below]. Thus, if personalized instruction is being provided with sufficient supportive services to permit the child to benefit from the instruction, and the other items on the definitional checklist are satisfied, the child is receiving a "free appropriate public education" as defined by the Act.
The Court’s language suggests that any benefit is sufficient to satisfy the requirement that schools provide FAPE; Justice Rehnquist, who wrote the majority opinion, took a very literal and formal approach to the language of the law to reach this Court’s conclusion.
Congress imposed the FAPE mandate in the Education for all Handicapped Children Act of 1975, Public Law 94-142, subsequently re-enacted as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”). The meaning of FAPE is before Education Law Prof Blog: