Free Appropriate Public Education

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (2005) mandates that school boards provide all students with disabilities with a free appropriate public education (FAPE). In so doing, school boards must maintain a “continuum of alternative placements.” The continuum should range from placements within general education classrooms to private residential facilities to homebound instruction and instruction in hospitals or institutions. In addition, when school staff write an individualized education program (IEP) for a child with disabilities that specifies an alternative placement for the child, this placement must be in the least restrictive environment (LRE) in which the child can function.

Moreover, students with disabilities can be removed from the general education environment only to the extent necessary to provide special education services. All placements must be at public expense and must meet state educational standards. While states are required to adopt policies and procedures that are consistent with federal law, they may provide greater benefits than those required by the IDEA. When states do establish higher standards, the higher state standards may be enforced in federal as well as state courts. Court decisions related to this issue are summarized in this entry.

Defining Appropriate

The IDEA’s language and legislative history provide little guidance regarding a definition of the term FAPE. According to the IDEA’s implementing regulations, an appropriate education consists of special education and related services that are provided in conformance with an IEP (34 C.F.R. § 300.17). Another regulation further defines special education as “specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability . . .” (34 C.F.R. § 300.38). Where all of these terms and definitions are open to interpretation, it is not surprising that much litigation has ensued over the meaning of the term appropriate as used in the IDEA.

In 1982, in Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley, the U.S. Supreme Court, in its first case involving a dispute under the IDEA, defined the term appropriate as used in the act. The Court proclaimed that a school board satisfies the IDEA’s requirement of providing a FAPE when it provides “personalized instruction with sufficient support services to permit the child to benefit educationally from that instruction” (p. 203). In addition, the court found that IEPs must be formulated in accordance with the IDEA’s procedural requirements.

In order to provide additional clarification, the Court indicated that other provisions of the IDEA are pertinent in evaluating whether proposed IEPs are appropriate. Specifically, the Court noted that educational programs must be provided in the LRE, and that related or supportive services that may be required to assist children in benefiting from special education programs also need to be included in the child’s overall program. The Court reiterated that all services must be furnished at public expense and must meet state educational standards.

Although Rowley provided greater clarification, it did not end the legal debate over what constitutes a FAPE. In the immediate aftermath of Rowley, most lower courts wrote that IEPs and the educational programs that they called for were appropriate if they resulted in some educational benefit to students, even if that benefit was minimal. Most lower federal courts initially concurred that Congress only intended for the IDEA to provide students with disabilities with access to educational programs.

Clarifying Benefit

Rowley plainly states that students with disabilities must be placed in educational programs that will confer some educational benefit. Even so, the First Circuit determined that a student with severe disabilities need not demonstrate an ability to benefit from a special education program to be eligible for services (Timothy W. v. Rochester, New Hampshire, School District, 1989). In confirming the IDEA’s zero reject principle, the court emphasized that education encompasses a wide spectrum of training, including instruction in even the most basic life skills. Thus, school boards cannot refuse to provide services to students even when they deem children too disabled to derive benefit from those services.

A few years after Rowley, the lower courts began to expand their interpretation of the some educational benefit criteria. While the first decisions maintained that minimal benefits met this standard, later cases interpreted the IDEA as requiring something more. The Fourth Circuit commented that Rowley allowed a court to make a case-by-case analysis of the substantive standards needed to meet the criteria that IEPs must reasonably have been calculated to enable students to receive educational benefits (Hall v. Vance County Board of Education, 1985). Under the circumstances of this suit, the court was of the opinion that the minimal progress that the student made was insufficient in view of his intellectual potential. The court insisted that Congress certainly did not intend for any school board to provide programs that produced only trivial academic advancements. Subsequently, the same court pointed out that an IEP with a goal of four months’ progress during an academic year was unlikely to allow a student to advance from grade to grade with passing marks, and thus was insufficient to provide the student with an appropriate education (Carter v. Florence County School District Four, 1991, 1993).

Other cases helped to clarify the principle that trivial educational benefit is not sufficient to confer a FAPE under the IDEA. In particular, the Third Circuit frequently decided that satisfying Rowley’s mandate required plans likely to produce progress, not trivial educational advancements, and that Congress intended to provide all students with disabilities with educational placements that would have resulted in meaningful benefits (Board of Education of East Windsor Regional School District v. Diamond, 1986; M.C. ex rel. J.C. v. Central Regional School District, 1996; Polk v. Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit 16, 1988).

The disagreements over FAPE notwithstanding, the Supreme Court made it clear that school boards are not required to develop IEPs designed to maximize the potential of students with disabilities. In Rowley, the Court specifically rejected the view that the IDEA requires programs to provide students with disabilities with opportunities to achieve their full potential commensurate with the opportunities given to students who are not disabled.

Allan G. Osborne, Jr.

See also Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley; Disabled Persons, Rights of; Inclusion; Individualized Education Program (IEP); Least Restrictive Environment; Related Services; Timothy W. v. Rochester, New Hampshire, School District; Zero Reject

Further Readings

  • Osborne, A. G. (1992). Legal standards for an appropriate education in the post-Rowley era. Exceptional Children, 58, 488–494. 

Legal Citations

  • Board of Education of East Windsor Regional School District v. Diamond, 808 F.2d 987 (3d Cir. 1986). 
  • Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (1982). 
  • Carter v. Florence County School District Four, 950 F.2d 156 (4th Cir. 1991), aff ’d on other grounds sub nom. Florence County School District Four v. Carter, 510 U.S. 7 (1993). 
  • Hall v. Vance County Board of Education, 774 F.2d 629 (4th Cir. 1985). 
  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 20 U.S.C. §§ 1400 et seq. 
  • M. C. ex rel. J. C. v. Central Regional School District, 81 F.3d 389 (3d Cir. 1996). 
  • Polk v. Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit 16, 853 F.2d 171 (3d Cir. 1988). 
  • Timothy W. v. Rochester, New Hampshire, School District, 875 F.2d 954 (1st Cir. 1989).