We live in an acronym-encrusted world. Some argue that these abbreviations have their benefits. They can be easy to remember. Institutional entities tend to love them, and the law and education are no exceptions. Within the halls of any school in Alabama, letters fly (and not just because the children are learning the alphabet). This post is about one special set – FAPE.

That stands for free and public education. It is the foundational element in the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). That 1990 law states that special needs children are entitled to receive a “free appropriate public education.” The meaning of that might seem clear, but those experienced in advocating for students and parents know what’s appropriate can be subject to interpretation.

Many experts hold the view that what’s appropriate is to provide services that make it possible for a child to develop and progress educationally at about the same rate as others in the same grade level. That runs counter to legal precedent and that is why the question finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court last year, resulting in a unanimous opinion.

Appropriate doesn’t mean minimum

The case is known as Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District. The child at the center is a boy on the autism spectrum. Throughout several years of his elementary schooling, the boy was taught under parameters of an individualized education program (IEP) that essentially remained the same year to year. When his progress began to falter, the parents put him in private school and sought tuition reimbursement from the public schools.

Every court up until the high court rejected the parents’ request saying that the boy’s IEP provided the minimal benefits necessary. However, the Supreme Court justices ordered a tougher standard – one that is “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.”

If you find that that language still leaves wiggle room for schools, you aren’t wrong. But, the court’s opinion is that the old standard meant a child could get no education at all and the new standard puts the focus on reinforcing the best possible achievement.

Parents of special needs children can still face pushback from schools on what elements constitute FAPE. When disputes arise, engaging a skilled education law attorney can help ensure a student’s rights are protected.