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Challenging Objectives: A Legal and Empirical Analysis of the Substantive FAPE Standard After Endrew F.

  • Author(s): Bueso, Leah
  • Advisor(s): Rogers, John S
  • et al.
Abstract

In 2017, the Supreme Court in Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District RE-1 clarified the substantive FAPE standard for the first time in 35 years. This dissertation used interdisciplinary legal research methods to understand how federal courts and district representatives in a large, urban school district have interpreted the recent changes in special education law. Part 1 is a doctrinal legal analysis of case law applying the substantive FAPE standard from 2015-2018. Part 2 is a qualitative legal analysis of the socially constructed realities of law experienced by special education professionals. Part 3 is a critical policy analysis of the social practices of power in IEP meetings by local actors in the school district.

This dissertation provided a critical reflection on the interpretations of the substantive FAPE standard by internal (e.g. judges and lawyers) and external (e.g. educators and families) actors. Thus far, federal courts have interpreted the changes in Endrew F. narrowly. While they acknowledged that Endrew F. raised the minimum threshold for progress, they have not read the decision as requiring a higher maximum threshold for progress. Moreover, federal courts found 88.4% of plaintiffs’ IEPs to be substantively appropriate, which reflects an 8:1 pro-district outcome ratio and suggests courts strongly defer to the educational expertise of school authorities when determining whether a substantive FAPE was provided. However, district representatives reported significant gaps in their understanding of special education law and did not articulate a clear standard for determining appropriate progress. Furthermore, district data disaggregated by geographic region revealed an inequitable distribution of related services and legal remedies for students with disabilities based on racial/ethnic demographics, socioeconomic status, and disability classification.

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