BOARD OF EDUC. V. ROWLEY, 458 U. S. 176 (1982)

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U.S. Supreme Court

Board of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (1982)

Board of Education, Hendrick Hudson

Central School District v. Rowley

No. 80-1002

Argued March 23, 1982

Decided June 28, 1982

458 U.S. 176


The Education of the Handicapped Act (Act) provides federal money to assist state and local agencies in educating handicapped children. To qualify for federal assistance, a State must demonstrate, through a detailed plan submitted for federal approval, that it has in effect a policy that assures all handicapped children the right to a "free appropriate public education," which policy must be tailored to the unique needs of the handicapped child by means of an "individualized educational program" (IEP). The IEP must be prepared (and reviewed at least annually) by school officials with participation by the child's parents or guardian. The Act also requires that a participating State provide specified administrative procedures by which the child's parents or guardian may challenge any change in the evaluation and education of the child. Any party aggrieved by the state administrative decisions is authorized to bring a civil action in either a state court or a federal district court. Respondents -- a child with only minimal residual hearing who had been furnished by school authorities with a special hearing aid for use in the classroom and who was to receive additional instruction from tutors, and the child's parents -- filed suit in Federal District Court to review New York administrative proceedings that had upheld the school administrators' denial of the parents' request that the child also be provided a qualified sign-language interpreter in all of her academic classes. Entering judgment for respondents, the District Court found that although the child performed better than the average child in her class and was advancing easily from grade to grade, she was not performing as well academically as she would without her handicap. Because of this disparity between the child's achievement and her potential, the court held that she was not receiving a "free appropriate public education," which the court defined as "an opportunity to achieve [her] full potential commensurate with the opportunity provided to other children." The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Page 458 U. S. 177


1. The Act's requirement of a "free appropriate public education" is satisfied when the State provides personalized instruction with sufficient support services to permit the handicapped child to benefit educationally from that instruction. Such instruction and services must be provided at public expense, must meet the State's educational standards, must approximate grade levels used in the State's regular education, and must comport with the child's IEP, as formulated in accordance with the Act's requirements. If the child is being educated in regular classrooms, as here, the IEP should be reasonably calculated to enable the child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade. Pp. 458 U. S. 187-204.

(a) This interpretation is supported by the definitions contained in the Act, as well as by other provisions imposing procedural requirements and setting forth statutory findings and priorities for States to follow in extending educational services to handicapped children. The Act's language contains no express substantive standard prescribing the level of education to be accorded handicapped children. Pp. 458 U. S. 187-190.

(b) The Act's legislative history shows that Congress sought to make public education available to handicapped children, but did not intend to impose upon the States any greater substantive educational standard than is necessary to make such access to public education meaningful. The Act's intent was more to open the door of public education to handicapped children by means of specialized educational services than to guarantee any particular substantive level of education once inside. Pp. 458 U. S. 191-197.

(c) While Congress sought to provide assistance to the States in carrying out their constitutional responsibilities to provide equal protection of the laws, it did not intend to achieve strict equality of opportunity or services for handicapped and nonhandicapped children, but rather sought primarily to identify and evaluate handicapped children, and to provide them with access to a free public education. The Act does not require a State to maximize the potential of each handicapped child commensurate with the opportunity provided nonhandicapped children. Pp. 458 U. S. 198-200.

2. In suits brought under the Act's judicial review provisions, a court must first determine whether the State has complied with the statutory procedures, and must then determine whether the individualized program developed through such procedures is reasonably calculated to enable the child to receive educational benefits. If these requirements are met, the State has complied with the obligations imposed by Congress, and the courts can require no more. Pp. 458 U. S. 204-208.

Page 458 U. S. 178

(a) Although the judicial-review provisions do not limit courts to ensuring that States have complied with the Act's procedural requirements, the Act's emphasis on procedural safeguards demonstrates the legislative conviction that adequate compliance with prescribed procedures will in most cases assure much, if not all, of what Congress wished in the way of substantive content in an IEP. Pp. 458 U. S. 204-207.

(b) The courts must be careful to avoid imposing their view of preferable educational methods upon the States. Once a court determines that the Act's requirements have been met, questions of methodology are for resolution by the States. Pp. 458 U. S. 207-208.

3. Entrusting a child's education to state and local agencies does not leave the child without protection. As demonstrated by this case, parents and guardians will not lack ardor in seeking to ensure that handicapped children receive all of the benefits to which they are entitled by the Act. Pp. 458 U. S. 208-209.

4. The Act does not require the provision of a sign-language interpreter here. Neither of the courts below found that there had been a failure to comply with the Act's procedures, and the findings of neither court will support a conclusion that the child's educational program failed to comply with the substantive requirements of the Act. Pp. 458 U. S. 209-210.

632 F.2d 945, reversed and remanded.

REHNQUIST, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which BURGER, C.J.,and POWELL, STEVENS, and O'CONNOR, JJ., joined. BLACKMUN, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, post, p. 458 U. S. 210. WHITE, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BRENNAN and MARSHALL, JJ., joined, post, p. 458 U. S. 212.

Page 458 U. S. 179

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