• Rowley Educational Benefit Standard Still Applies In Individuals with Disabilities Education Act Cases
  • September 23, 2009 | Author: Diana D. Halpenny
  • Law Firm: Kronick Moskovitz Tiedemann & Girard, A Law Corporation - Sacramento Office
  • In J.L. v. Mercer Island School District, (--- F.3d ----, C.A.9 (Wash.), August 6, 2009), the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit considered whether Congress superseded the holding of Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (1982) (“Rowley”) when it amended the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) in 1997 and changed the definition of “transition services.” The Court of Appeals held that Congress had not intended to supersede Rowley and that Rowley “continues to set the free appropriate public education standard.”

    K.L. was diagnosed with learning disabilities in the first grade. A complex series of interactions occurred between the District and parents from first to ninth grade. After ninth grade, District held an individualized education program (“IEP”) meeting at which it presented a tenth grade IEP to K.L.’s parents, which was “aimed at attending a community or technical college.” The District and parents continued to dispute placement, independent evaluations and private school funding. When an IEP meeting finally took place, the IEP team rejected K.L.’s placement at the private school.

    K.L’s parents eventually consented to an independent evaluation. The reports from the evaluation overwhelmingly agreed with District’s proposed IEP. K.L.’s parents sought tuition reimbursement and asked for a due process hearing. The administrative law judge (“ALJ”) found that District did not have to reimburse K.L.’s parents. The federal district court reversed the ALJ’s decision finding that Congress had superseded the “educational benefit” standard found in Rowley.

    The Court of Appeals held that Congress did not intend to supersede Rowley and that the “educational benefit” standard still applies in IDEA cases. Under the IDEA, states must provide disabled children with a free appropriate public education. In 1982, the United States Supreme Court handed down its holding in Rowley in which it concluded that states must provide a “basic floor of opportunity to disabled students, not a potential-maximizing education.” In other words “states must confer some educational benefit upon the handicapped child.” The Rowley Court established a two-part test to apply to determine whether the state has provided a free appropriate public education. The first inquiry is whether the state has complied with the procedures set forth in the IDEA. The second inquiry is whether the IEP developed pursuant to the IDEA procedures is “reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits.” If these two requirements are met, the state has complied with the obligations imposed by Congress.

    In 1983, Congress introduced the concept of “transition services” and authorized federal funds to assist students “in the transitional process to postsecondary education, vocational training, competitive employment, continuing education, or adult services.” Congress however did not require states to provide transitional services. Congress did not change the definition of free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) in the 1983 or 1986 amendments to the statutory predecessor of the IDEA.

    When Congress amended the IDEA in 1990, it again did not change the definition of FAPE, but did make changes regarding transition services. Congress’s amendment made two substantial changes: (1) it provided that IEPs were required to contain a statement regarding the need for transition services “beginning no later than age 16 and annually thereafter (and when determined appropriate.... beginning at age 14 or younger); and (2) it defined transition services as “a coordinated set of activities for a student, designed within an outcome oriented process, which promotes movement from school to post-school activities. . . .”

    Congress again amended the IDEA in 1997, but did not indicate a disapproval of the Rowley holding or functionally change the definition of FAPE. It did, however, require “beginning at age 14, and updated annually, a statement of the transition service needs of the child. . . that focuses on the child’s course of study (such as participation in advanced placement courses or a vocational education program).”

    Reviewing the history, the Court of Appeals found “there is no plausible way to read the definition of transition services as changing the free appropriate education standard.” If Congress wanted to change the standard for the FAPE “educational benefit,” which has been in place since the Rowley holding in 1982, “it would have expressed a clear intent to do so.” Congress instead did not change the definition of FAPE in any material way; it did not indicate “that a disabled student could not receive a [FAPE] absent the attainment of transition goals;” and “it did not express disagreement with the ‘educational benefit’ standard or indicate that it sought to supersede Rowley.” The Court of Appeals remanded the case back to the district court to review the ALJ’s determination that District provided an educational benefit to K.L. under the standard set out in Rowley.

    What This Means To You
    The Rowley two-part standard for determining FAPE is still the applicable test in the 9th Circuit, and will be applied to transition services.