Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley
In 1982, the Supreme Court decided Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley. In Rowley, the Court, for the first time, resolved a case interpreting portions of what was then called the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA), the legislation that would later be renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 1990). Pursuant to the EAHCA and, later, the IDEA, states, through local school boards, are obligated to provide students with disabilities a free appropriate public education (FAPE) in the least restrictive environment as detailed in an individualized education program (IEP) for each child. In Rowley, the Court offered a definition of FAPE. The Court concluded that the states’ obligation to provide FAPE was satisfied “by providing personalized instruction with sufficient support services to permit the child to benefit educationally from that instruction” (p. 203).
Facts of the Case
Amy Rowley was a deaf student enrolled in kindergarten in public school in Peekskill, New York. Prior to the beginning of her kindergarten year, Amy’s parents met with school administrators to plan for her attendance and to determine what supplemental services would be necessary for her education. During a short portion of her kindergarten year, Amy was provided with a sign language interpreter in the classroom. Following a two-week trial period, the interpreter reported that Amy did not need his services in the classroom. After her kindergarten year, an IEP was prepared for Amy.
The IEP provided that Amy would remain in the regular classroom and would be provided with an FM wireless hearing aid in the classroom, and, additionally, she would receive instruction from a tutor for one hour a day and from a speech therapist for three hours per week outside of the classroom. Amy’s parents objected to portions of the IEP, requesting that the school provide Amy with a sign language interpreter instead of the other forms of assistance identified in the IEP. School administrators refused the request, concluding that Amy did not need an interpreter in the classroom.
Amy’s parents sought administrative and judicial review of the school’s decision pursuant to the EAHCA. The Rowleys argued that because Amy could only decode a fraction (approximately 60%) of the oral language available to hearing students in class, she was entitled to a sign-language interpreter. Without an interpreter, they argued, Amy would be denied the educational opportunity available to her classmates.
After a hearing officer declared that Amy was entitled to an interpreter, the school board sought judicial review. A federal trial court in New York ruled, and the Second Circuit affirmed, that Amy was being denied the opportunity to achieve her potential at a level “commensurate with the opportunity provided other children”—a standard that echoed the regulations implemented for Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973.
The Court’s Ruling
The Supreme Court reversed, rejecting the Section 504 standard. Instead, the Court found that Amy was receiving an educational benefit sufficient to meet the FAPE requirement of EAHCA. According to the Court, the instruction need only confer some educational benefit to qualify as FAPE. The Court reasoned that Amy benefited educationally (and, thus, received FAPE) as demonstrated by her passing grades in individual subjects and her grade-to-grade progress. In reaching this conclusion, the Court declared that EAHCA did not require school boards to “maximize the potential of handicapped children commensurate with the opportunity provided to other children” (p. 189). Therefore, the Court did not think that Amy was entitled to a sign language interpreter in the classroom. The justices instructed future courts to limit their inquiries to whether school officials complied with the procedural protections of EAHCA and whether students’ instructional programs were reasonably calculated to lead to educational benefit.
In reaching its outcome, the Supreme Court opted not to enunciate a standard of equal opportunity for students with disabilities. The Court stated that the Rowleys “correctly note that [in enacting the EAHCA,] Congress sought ‘to provide assistance to the States in carrying out their responsibilities under . . . the Constitution of the United States to provide equal protection of the laws.’ But we do not think that such statements imply a congressional intent to achieve strict equality of opportunity or services” (p. 198).
The “educational benefit” standard that the Supreme Court articulated in Rowley has been viewed as a minimalist requirement for what constitutes FAPE. Regardless, subsequent courts have struggled to interpret the meaning of “some educational benefit.” Ensuing federal courts have broadened the definition to require that an appreciable, meaningful, or more-than-trivial benefit be conferred by the education provided. Other cases expanded the educational benefit definition to require progress, effective results, or demonstrable improvements.
In addition to providing a definition for FAPE, the Rowley Court also articulated a standard of judicial deference to the decision making of educational authorities. The Supreme Court cautioned the courts not “to substitute their own notions of sound educational policy for those of the school authorities which they review,” noting that judges were ill-equipped to make decisions about appropriate educational methodologies (p. 206). In the years since the Rowley opinion was handed down, school boards and officials seeking to overcome parents’ judicial challenges to methodological choices need only demonstrate that the methodological choice is reasonably calculated to lead to student progress.
John A. LaNear and Elise M. Frattura
See also Free Appropriate Public Education; Individualized Education Program (IEP); Least Restrictive Environment; Rehabilitation Act of 1973, Section 504
- Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (1982).
- Mills v. District of Columbia Board of Education, 348 F. Supp. 866 (D.C. 1972).
- Polk v. Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit 16, 853 F.2d 171 (3d Cir. 1988).
- Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, 334 F. Supp. 1257 (E.D. Pa. 1971) and 343 F. Supp. 279 (1972).