In their brief on the merits, Drew and his parents acknowledge that the IDEA does not require schools to “maximize the potential of children with disabilities.” But, they are quick to add, it is not enough for schools to provide a “merely more than de minimis” benefit to children with disabilities: They need to provide those children with essentially the same opportunities that are available to students more generally. This conclusion follows from the purpose of the IDEA, they reason, in which Congress intended to provide children with disabilities not simply with access to public education, but also with enough substantive educational benefit to make such access meaningful. To that end, they continue, Congress twice made changes to the IDEA – in 1997 and then again in 2004 – that were intended to “place greater emphasis on improving student performance and ensuring that children with disabilities receive a quality public education.” “Providing a child with disability with” an education that imparts a benefit that is “merely more than de minimis,” they suggest, “offers little hope of” meeting that goal.
The federal government filed a brief supporting Drew and his parents. The Supreme Court, the government notes, indicated in Rowley that the requirement of a FAPE imposes on states a duty to ensure that children with disabilities have “access” to an education that is “meaningful.” That “meaningful access” requirement, the government continues, “is most sensibly understood” to require states to provide each child with disabilities with “an opportunity to make significant educational progress” – a much higher standard than a “more than de minimis” benefit.
The school district also relies on the court’s decision in Rowley, but to support a very different conclusion. In the school district’s view, Rowley squarely answers the question presented by this case, indicating that the IDEA does not “prescribe the level of education to be accorded handicapped children.” Instead, the school district contends, the court in Rowley made clear that a child with a disability receives an “appropriate education” as long as that education is “personalized” and “sufficient to confer some educational benefit.” Other provisions of the IDEA, the school district points out, help to “ensure that children will and do receive a high-quality education”; there is no need to impose a more specific standard.