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 Home > Law > Rebutting Rowley: Independence & Self-Sufficiency Are New Standards for a FAPE by Peter Wright, Esq. and Pamela Wright, MA, MSW

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Rebutting Rowley? Independence and Self-Sufficiency Are New Standards for FAPE
Peter W. D. Wright, Esq. & Pamela Wright, MA, MSW

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In J.L. and M.L., and their minor daughter, K.L. v. Mercer Island (WA) School District, U. S. District Court Judge Pechman reversed the decision of an Administrative Law Judge and ruled in favor of a high school student with dyslexia.

In support of her finding that the standards for a free appropriate public education described by the U. S. Supreme Court decision in Board of Ed. of Hendrick Hudson Central School Dist. v. Rowley 458 U.S. 176 were no longer relevant, the judge cited changes in recent IDEA reauthorizations that are so significant "that any citation to pre-1997 case law on special education is suspect."Id.


K.L. is a 17-year-old high school student. She is of average intelligence but she has severe learning disabilities that affect her ability to read and write. From sixth grade through ninth grade, K.L. attended a public school that provided accommodations for her reading disability, but did not teach her to read.

Standardized testing showed that K. L.’s skills in reading and writing were years behind those of her peers. On the Gates-MacGinitie, she scored at the 1st percentile in reading.

Before K.L. began tenth grade, her parents removed her from the public school program and enrolled her in the Landmark School, a private special education school in Massachusetts. At Landmark School, K.L. learned to read and write.

K.L.'s parents requested that the school district reimburse them for her education at the Landmark School, pursuant to 20 U.S.C. §1412(a)(10).

(Note: For the statute about unilateral placements, see pages 76-77 in Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, 2nd Edition. Sample tuition reimbursement letters are in Wrightslaw: From Emotions to Advocacy, 2nd Edition and in Letters & Paper Trails.)

IDEA 97 Raised the Bar

Although K.L. v. Mercer Island School District is a tuition reimbursement case that focuses on accommodations v. remediation, the decision lays out a higher standard for a free appropriate public education (FAPE).

Citing changes by Congress in the 1997 reauthorization of IDEA, the Court concluded that Rowley is no longer the standard for determining if a child’s special education program is appropriate.
Because of longstanding problems caused by “low expectations, and an insufficient focus on applying replicable research on proven methods of teaching and learning for children with disabilities,” Congress placed increasing emphasis on transition services, independent living and economic self-sufficiency when they reauthorized IDEA 97.

In K.L., the Court questioned the school's reliance on the 1982 Supreme Court decision in Rowley that required schools to provide “access to specialized instruction,” that a school provided FAPE “if the student derives more than minimal or trivial progress” and the child’s program “was reasonably calculated to provide educational benefit.” Id.

IEPs Did Not Focus on the Transition to Independent Living and Self-Sufficiency

The Court found numerous deficits in the school district’s IEPs. The district focused on providing accommodations and failed to provide K.L. with remediation so she could learn to read. The school’s IEPs were deficient because they did not aim “at achieving independence and self-sufficiency for the student and to provide ‘meaningful (i.e., significant) educational benefits’ in that regard. Finally the IEPs failed to provide information about times and teaching methodologies that would be used to teach K.L. how to read. Id.

The judge found that “The IDEA is not simply about “access;” it is focused on “transition services . . . an outcome-oriented process, which promotes movement from school to post-school activities . . . ” 20 U.S.C. 1401(3); 34 C.F.R. 300.29

“Meaningful Educational Benefit” Includes Preparation for Self-Sufficiency

The Court found that having others read to K.L. and write for her “is totally at odds with the IDEA goals of self-sufficiency and independent living . . .” Id. The Judge also found that “providing a ‘meaningful educational benefit’ under the IDEA requires programs and results which reflect that Act’s emphasis on preparation for self-sufficiency.” Id.

In remanding the case back to the ALJ, the court ordered the ALJ to:

     Focus on whether the district’s IEPs “met the IDEA standard of ‘equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and      economic self-sufficiency” and

     Consider the progress K.L. made at Landmark (a multitude of tests showed she made “significant advances in reading, writing, and      other literacy skills, progressing in areas where the District’s IEPs failed …”) Id.

IEPs Must Include Time Committed & Teaching Methodologies

Citing the Commentary to the IDEA 97 Regulations, the Court found that IEPs are required to include:

     “The amount of time to be committed . . . must be appropriate and must be stated in the IEP . . .” Interpretation, 64 FedReg 12,478)

     “The particular teaching methodology that will be used . . . will need to be discussed at the IEP meeting and incorporated into the      student’s IEP.” Interpretation, 64 FedReg 12,552

The Court found that the “absence of any specification of teaching methodologies and time allotments to various services represents a further IDEA violation.” Id.

Rebutting Rowley

Relying upon the 1982 Supreme Court decision in Board of Ed. of Hendrick Hudson Central School Dist. v. Rowley 458 U.S. 176, the school district argued that they were only required to provide “basic floor of opportunity . . . that consists of access to specialized education . . . [and] FAPE is provided if the student derives more than minimal or trivial progress in a placement . . .”

The Court explained why the standards in Rowley are no longer appropriate: “These are not the standards of the 1997 IDEA” and “the District and the ALJ have set the bar too low.” The proper standard now, in light of changes in IDEA, are whether the program provides “equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency.” (the full text of the IDEA Findings and Purposes cited here is at the end of this article.)

In the Conclusion, the Court explained:

"The IDEA calls for disability education programs which guide the student toward post-education independence and self-sufficiency. In pursuit of that goal, students such as K.L. must receive educational opportunities which significantly advance them towards that end. The IEPs developed in accordance with this statutory scheme must specifically delineate the methodologies to be used to achieve these goals and the time to be allotted to each of the services employed to that end and further must be geared toward the achievement of enumerated goals. Where a previous year’s IEP has fallen short of the marks it set, the succeeding IEPs must identify the means to advance the student further." J.L. and M.L., and their minor daughter, K.L. v. Mercer Island (WA) School District

Most of the facts in this case occurred before IDEA was reauthorized in 2004. IDEA 2004, the new Federal Regulations, and the comprehensive Commentary to the Regulations provide additional support of the Court’s position that the 1982 decision in Rowley is "suspect."

In light of Congressional changes in IDEA 97 and IDEA 2004, a new definition of a free appropriate public education (FAPE) is evolving that emphasizes the transition from school to post-school activities, independence and self-sufficiency.

Howard C. Powers, Esq.

K.L. and her family were represented by Howard C. Powers, Esq., an attorney who specializes in special education law. See


The Congressional Findings are in 20 U. S .C. §1400(c) of the Individuals with Disabilities Education act.

(c) Findings. Congress finds the following:

(1) Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society. Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.

(2) Before the date of enactment of the Education for All Handicapped
. . .

(5) Almost 30 years of research and experience has demonstrated that the education of children with disabilities can be made more effective by-

    (A) having high expectations for such children and ensuring their access to the general education curriculum in the regular classroom, to the maximum extent possible, in order to-

        (i) meet developmental goals and, to the maximum extent possible, the challenging expectations that have been established for all children; and

        (ii) be prepared to lead productive and independent adult lives, to the maximum extent possible;

     (B) strengthening the role and responsibility of parents and ensuring that families of such children have meaningful opportunities to participate in the education of their children at school and at home;

     (C) coordinating this title with other local, educational service agency, State, and Federal school improvement efforts, including improvement efforts under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, in order to ensure that such children benefit from such efforts and that special education can become a service for such children rather than a place where such children are sent;

IDEA 97 and IDEA 2004

The full text of Findings at Section 1400(c) is in Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, 2nd Edition, pages 45-46.

The text of Purpose of IDEA at 20 U. S .C. §1400(d) is in Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, 2nd Edition, page 48. The

The text of the U. S. Supreme Court decision in Board of Ed. of Hendrick Hudson Central School Dist. v. Rowley 458 U.S. 176 is in Wrightslaw: Special Education Law, 2nd Edition, pages 343-358.

IDEA 2004 - Includes the IDEA 2004 statute, regulations and commentary; articles; guidance publications from the U. S. Department of Education on IDEA topics including child find, eligibility, evaluations, reevaluations, high stakes testing, IEPs, IEP teams, IEP meetings. accommodations, alternate assessments, placements, transition, parental rights, procedural safeguards, and more.


Scroll down the IDEA Statute page for the the IDEA 97 statute and regulations.

Reexamining Rowley: A New Focus in Special Education Law - Attorney Scott Johnson argues that the "some educational benefit" standard in Rowley no longer reflects the requirements of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. State standards and educational adequacy requirements provide requirements of a free appropriate public education (FAPE), these standards exceed the "some educational benefit" benchmark. This requires a fundamental change in how courts, school districts, and parents view special education services.

Special Education Law Articles

Special Education Cases

Special Education Law Library

Landmark School Tuition Reimbursement Case: James Brody v. Dare County Public Schools

Several years ago, Pete represented James Brody who attended the Landmark School. The facts in James’ case are similar to those in K.L.’s case. Links to some documents from James’ case:

The parents’ due process request letter that describes James’ problems and cites falling test scores as evidence that the school was not teaching James to read or write.

The Review Officer’s Decision

A letter by James Brody that described his experiences at his due process hearing:

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Revised: 12/30/16
Created: 01/22/07

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