The Rowley Standard – Part One

The IDEA Guarantee of a Free Appropriate Public Education
Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), children that qualify for special education are guaranteed a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). The Free, Public, and Education aspects of this acronym are generally not an issue. However, defining “appropriate” is at the core of most disputes between parents of a child with special needs and that child’s school district. If a special education director has ever reminded you that your child need only receive “some educational benefit” or that the school need only provide a “floor of opportunity” or that your child was not entitled to a “Cadillac Education” than you and your child have encountered the Rowley Standard.

Defining “Appropriate” in Free Appropriate Public Education
So, what is considered “appropriate” under the Rowley Standard? The standard against which a district’s FAPE offer is measured to determine whether it is an “appropriate” offer is referred to as the “Rowley Standard” and is based on the Supreme Court decision in Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central Sch. Dist. v. Rowley. Every opinion penned by an Administrative Law Judge in the Office of Administrative Hearings in California (and probably all other states but I am licensed in California) regarding a denial of FAPE references this thirty year-old case. The legal analysis section of these opinions contain, with very little variation, the following:

In Board of Educ. v. Rowley (1982) 458 U.S. 176 [102 S. Ct. 3034, 73 L.Ed.2d 690] (Rowley), the Supreme Court held that the IDEA does not require school districts to provide special education students the best education available, or to provide instruction or services that maximize a student’s abilities. School districts are required to provide only a “basic floor of opportunity” that consists of access to specialized instruction and related services individually designed to provide educational benefit to the student. *

Essentially, the Supreme Court interpreted Congressional intent in passing the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (later reauthorized as the IDEA and then the IDEIA) as a more modest opening of the “public school doors” to children with special needs rather than a sweeping “guarantee of any particular level of education once inside.”

Amy Rowley and the Hendrick Hudson Central School District
Rowley was the first case brought before the Supreme Court requesting an interpretation of a provision of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act. The case centered around Amy Rowley, a deaf student at the Furnace Woods School in the Hendrick Hudson Central School District, Peekskill, N.Y. When Amy’s parents’ request for a sign-language interpreter was denied, the Rowleys requested a hearing before an independent examiner – a due process hearing. The parents lost at due process because the examiner determined that “Amy was achieving educationally, academically, and socially” without such assistance.

The Rowley’s brought the case to district court upon losing in due process. The District Court looked at the disparity between the child’s achievement and her potential and reached an entirely different outcome. The Court decided that Amy was not receiving a Free Appropriate Public Education because she was not provided with the “opportunity to achieve her full potential commensurate with the opportunity provided to other children.” The decision and this interpretation of “appropriate” was then affirmed by a divided panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. Enter the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court Interprets the FAPE Requirement
The Supreme Court, as noted, did not agree with the lower court’s interpretation of appropriate. Justice Rehnquist, writing for the majority, did not find that the goal of the Education of All Handicapped Children Act was to provide “an equal educational opportunity.” Rather, Rehnquist writing for the majority determined that a school district’s FAPE offer was “appropriate” when it provides “personalized instruction with sufficient support services to permit the child to benefit educationally from that instruction…” This is a far cry from the lower courts requirement that a child with special needs be given the opportunity to “achieve her full potential.”

In an effort to provide some guidance in determining whether a child is benefiting from the support services provided by the district, SCOTUS observed that “the achievement of passing marks and advancement from grade to grade will be one important factor in determining educational benefit.” However, this is problematic when a child is on a modified curriculum that does not correlate with the curriculum of his peers which is not uncommon.

The decision was not unanimous. Justice White, joined by Justice Brennan and Justice Marshall begins the dissent with the opening salvo, “In order to reach its result in this case, the majority opinion contradicts itself, the language of the statute, and the legislative history. Both the majority’s standard for a “free appropriate public education” and its standard of judicial review disregard congressional intent.” In my next post, I will discuss the dissent and explore California state law that has expounded on the definition of FAPE. As you can probably infer from the blistering opening to the dissent and the vague guidance offered by SCOTUS, the application of the Rowley Standard has caused much discord between parents and school districts since it was handed down over thirty years ago.

*If you are interested in reading the OAH interpret the Rowley Standard, the California OAH publishes their decisions on a searchable website.

While I am an attorney and I do try to offer suggestions that are helpful for parents navigating the IEP process, I must stress that this is Not Legal Advice. It is not to be considered my professional opinion and should not be relied upon when making important legal decisions regarding your child. If you have any questions or concerns do consider contacting an attorney in your community that focuses on special education.