Federal and state law requires schools to provide FAPE to every child in need of specialized instruction and services. As a teacher I wrote such students’ IEPs and followed them in the classroom. As an education attorney I hold schools accountable, either for providing what the child needs to succeed within the district, or for paying for the cost to attend a school outside of the district.
For parents, the process of getting the right services can seem like wandering through a complicated maze. Meetings and forms follow one after the other. Developing the correct plan seems to depend on finding the right test and doing the right evaluation. Administrators know the rules and understand the procedures. Parents rarely do. Some hire professional advocates to help navigate this process. While knowledgeable, advocates have limited authority. As your education attorney, my involvement carries both expertise and legal weight, helping you get the education and services your child needs, in the most effective and timely way.
When we meet, I will listen with a teacher and attorney’s ear for the evidence to establish whether your child’s plan has met legal standards. Unlike an advocate, an education attorney can remedy failure through mediation or a due process hearing.
The New Standard for IEP Goals and Objectives
In November 2017 the United States Department of Education circulated a paper to public school districts on their obligations for IEP’s. The Department’s “Questions and Answers” explained its view of the meaning of a new Supreme Court decision on the measure of FAPE. Judging by the Department’s paper, the Court’s ruling has sent a message to schools that they have been offering too little to their most challenging students.
Districts have always interpreted the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence in one way. They have believed they must write goals and objectives they reasonably expect will provide the student with ‘some’ educational benefit. They have interpreted the law to mean that the progress their plans produced has had to be more than just trivial, but no more.
They have always applied this standard to students with autism and other difficult behaviors. Since they did not teach and serve these students in mainstream classrooms, they could rarely measure their progress with academic grades. But they could write IEP’s to show that these students were gaining at least some benefit from having gone to school.
In Endrew v. Douglas County School District the Supreme Court looked at the tuition reimbursement case of one such student. Endrew’s behavior in his public school had made it difficult for his IEP to measure his progress with mainstream academic grades. His parents believed he had made no progress of any kind.
The federal courts that first heard the case sided with the district. They emphasized the fact that each year Endrew’s district had slightly changed his plan’s goals and objectives. The lower courts concluded from this that his IEP’s had been reasonably calculated to produce some educational benefit.
But the Supreme Court looked at same IEP’s differently. It emphasized not that Endrew’s goals and objectives had changed slightly, but that from year to year they had stayed largely the same. To the Court this was a sign that he hadn’t made meaningful progress.
Equally significant to the Court’s decision was what happened after Endrew’s parents removed him from the district. The teachers at his new, private school boosted his plan’s goals and objectives. And they wrote an intervention plan that turned around his behavior. Within months Endrew began to make significant progress.
The district’s mistake, ruled the Court, had been in not challenging Endrew. Its teachers wrote IEP’s that they believed would produce progress for a student in his circumstances. But the private school teachers were more ambitious. They reasonably calculated they could get him to do more. Once they did, it proved that his earlier goals and objectives set the bar too low even for someone with his behaviors and abilities.
Following the Department of Education’s paper, an education attorney will now advise schools to write goals and objectives reasonably calculated to produce progress “in light of the child’s circumstances.” For the most challenging students, this will mean setting out more challenging plans.