What Level of Educational Benefit Must Schools Provide to Children with Special Needs?

An important case is currently before the U.S. Supreme Court that could cause significant harm to children across the nation who need special education services, or it could raise the bar for children with disabilities in areas that currently provide a lesser level of services than others.

Currently, in many areas of the country — including Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware — schools must provide an education that rises to a level of “meaningful benefit.”  Meaningful benefit is defined as not maximizing a student’s potential, but nevertheless providing significant learning in light of a child’s aptitude.  Thus, in areas such as ours, it is not sufficient that a child makes some progress under his program. Instead, the progress must be “meaningful” and involve significant learning.

In other areas of the country, however, the legal standard is far lower.  Schools in those areas must merely provide “some educational benefit” to children with disabilities.

The distinction exists due to different Courts interpreting the top Supreme Court cases on this issue in differing ways.  Courts applying a very literal interpretation have come up with the “some benefit” standard; Courts applying a more in depth analysis have established the “meaningful benefit” standard.

The distinction is significant.   Under the “some benefit” standard, children could be denied services in their most significant areas of need, based on the argument that they made “some progress” in some lesser area of need.  Imagine a child in high school who can barely read due to Dyslexia, and who struggles in math but is only one grade level behind — being denied effective reading supports because he has made “some” progress in math.

It certainly seems counter-intuitive that the IDEA would countenance as sufficient the provision of educational services that are NOT “meaningful” to a child.  But this is a prevailing interpretation of prior IDEA case law in several jurisdictions around the country.

Presently before the Supreme Court is a case that will require the Court to select one or the other approach, or to fashion a new approach of its own.   You can find access to the court papers in that case here:

Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District

I certainly support that an increased level of services must be required in the “some benefit” jurisdictions, and hope that the Supreme Court will act responsibly now that it has the opportunity to provide a single standard for all of our children with special needs across the nation.

Understand, however, that there is an equal risk that the Supreme Court rules the other way, and severely cuts the level of educational benefits children in our jurisdiction are currently entitled to.   If that should occur, our only recourse will be to convince the federal legislature to take action and make clear in the statute itself that it is intended to require that children with special needs receive an education that is at least “meaningful” to the child.