Defining "Appropriate" in FAPE

Posted by Angie Balsley on 9/20/2018 7:00:00 AM

Under IDEA, students with disabilities are to be provided with a free and appropriate public education (FAPE). However, the needs of individuals with disabilities vary so greatly that it is nearly impossible to define the substance of this right to an education in general terms (Neal & Kirp, 1985).  Two cases have been heard by the U.S. Supreme Court, however, which have attempted to define of the “appropriateness” of a student’s IEP.

The best-known case that attempted to define the levels of educational benefit that a school is required to provide a student with disabilities was the Board of Education of the Hendrick-Hudson Central School District v. Rowley (1982). The case involved a child who was deaf and relied mostly on lip-reading to learn in school. Her parents wanted the schools to provide an interpreter for her. The argument focused on the word ‘appropriate,’ a component of FAPE. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed a lower court decision that stated the school system had not provided the appropriate services for the student with disabilities (Yell & Drasgow, 2000). The decision stated that the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975 was not intended to guarantee a certain level of education, but merely to open the door of access to education for children with disabilities. The Court interpreted ‘appropriate’ within the IDEA’s FAPE mandate to have a dual meaning. The school district must provide procedural compliance with the Act. The substantive standard, according to Rowley, was that the eligible child’s IEP must be “reasonably calculated to yield educational benefit” (Martin, Martin, & Terman, 1996; Zirkel, 2005).

In reaching this decision, the Court “rejected the higher standards of commensurate opportunities, self-sufficiency, and maximization” (Zirkel, 2008, p. 401). Because the student in question was making passing grades at school through lip reading, she was deemed to derive reasonable benefit from the instruction.  In essence, the decision clarified that it is not the requirement of the state to increase the potential for children but to simply provide access to educational services. Romberg (2011) summarized the impact of Rowley stating that by minimizing the substantive protections of the Act, the Court instead “enshrined procedural safeguards as the Act’s animating force” (p. 427).

Recently, in 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court revisited Rowley by answering a similar question in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District (2017). In Endrew, the Court analyzed whether the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals was accurate in its interpretation of what constituted an appropriate education. The Tenth Circuit had held that the school district only needed to provide an education that conferred an “educational benefit [that is] merely…more than de minimis” (p. 997) for Endrew, a boy with autism. Endrew’s parents contended that the final IEP proposed by the school was not reasonably calculated to enable Endrew to receive educational benefit. The district argued that Endrew’s past IEP’s demonstrated a pattern of minimal progress. The Supreme Court found that the de minimus standard was problematic. The Court reasoned that to meet the substantive obligation under IDEA, a school district must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances. The decision reflected the notion that IDEA demands more than de minimus. The court declined to elaborate on what “appropriate” progress will look like from case-to-case, but stated that the “adequacy of a given IEP turns on the unique circumstances of the child for whom it was created” (p. 997).

While the outcome of the Endrew case didn’t significantly change the standard of appropriateness in Indiana, there were significant takeaways that can be gleaned. I will elaborate more on those learning points in my next publication. For now, know that the I in IEP remains individualized.


Board of Education v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (1982). (580 U.S. ___ 2017).

Endrew F. v. Douglas Co. Sch. Dist., 137 S. Ct.988 (2017).

Martin, E. W., Martin, R., & Terman, D. L. (1996). The legislative and litigation history of  special

education. The Future of Children, 6(1), 25-39.

Neal, D., & Kirp, D. L. (1985). The allure of legalization reconsidered: The case of special

education. Law and Contemporary Problems, 48(1), 63–87.

Romberg, J. (2011). The means justify the ends: Structural due process in special education law.

Harvard Journal on Legislation, 48, 415-466.

Yell, M. L., & Dragrow, E. (2000). Litigating a free appropriate public education: The Loovas

hearings and cases. The Journal of Special Education. 37(4), 205-214.

Zirkel, P. A. (2008). Have the amendments to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

razed Rowley and raised the substantive standard for free and appropriate public education? Journal of the National Association of Administrative Law Judiciary, 28(2), 397-419.


Dr. Angie Balsley, Executive Director