Volume 93, Number 4

October 2018

Solving the IDEA Puzzle: Building a Better Special Education Development Process Through Endrew F.

Allison Zimmer

When it was first enacted, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) had the potential to function both as a progressive statement on the rights and needs of children with disabilities and as a concrete mechanism for promoting the educa- tional progress of students with special needs—a population that had previously been all but denied access to the classroom. Yet despite the Act’s potential, over forty years of court precedents interpreting the Act have resulted in a diluted, unimaginative reality. The result is a system of inadequate education for students who most need educational revitalization: (1) a “continuum of alternative placements” provision that allows schools to provide students with only a bare outline of one-size-fits-most, group-based programming; (2) a “least restrictive environment” provision that does little to require that schools place students in public, integrated settings; and (3) an “educational benefit” standard that is far too comfortable with the status quo. This Note begins by tracing the failures of the IDEA in the delivery of special education today, characterized by the low academic achievement of students with disabilities, high rates of incarceration and exclusionary discipline, and a lack of imagination on the parts of districts and teachers. The Note then proceeds to explain how educational inaction has been allowed to persist through a policy of judicial deference to districts, with courts failing to demand bold action or creative generation of new and innovative special education programs. Despite these failures, this Note argues that the Supreme Court’s recent decision in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District RE-1 can be used to help advocates move courts and districts out of the largely stagnant provision of special education services, where schools continue to rely on the same ineffective and dated programs rather than developing new methods to reach children with disabilities who continue to struggle in school. This Note argues that the language of Endrew F. can be read to promote a more rigorous, guided process of program development, helping advocates evaluate a district’s process and communicate failures to courts in a way that authorizes courts to act to correct these failures. In moving beyond the status quo and requiring that schools engage in constant growth, Endrew F. has the potential to solve the “puzzle” of the IDEA’s three primary provisions which, through court interpretations and decades of neglect, has led to a stalemate that incentivizes inaction rather than solutions. This Note’s novel interpretation of Endrew F. encourages a more robust reading of the Act, which will in turn support the growth and development of children with disabilities across the nation’s public schools.