Rowley:  Good Law or Bad Law?

Education observers (That means you!) are familiar with the Supreme Court case Board of Education of the Henrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley.  That case, the first Supreme Court case to interpret the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, then known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act), helped define the meaning of “Free Appropriate Public Education” (FAPE).

This case has kept a lid on school expectations for students served by IDEA for almost 30 years.  It is time for the Rowley decision to be cast out of our educational vernacular.

Amy Rowley was a deaf first grader who was doing very well in school and was advancing easily to the next grade.  However, because the language used in school was spoken English and Amy was deaf, she missed a lot of classroom information.  She had an assistive listening system, but this was not enough to give her full access.  In fact, she understood less than half of what was said in the classroom. The Court determined that because Amy was passing her classes, this decreased amount of information was enough.  It was acceptable for Amy to receive less information just because she was deaf. 

Hm, do you think the parent of a hearing child would be okay with her child missing over half of what is being said in the classroom?  I don’t think so either.

The Court found that the FAPE requirements of the law are satisfied by “providing personalized instruction with sufficient support services to permit the child to benefit educationally from that instruction.”  Further, “if the child is being educated in the regular classrooms of the public education system, [the Individualized Education Program and personalized instruction] should be reasonably calculated to enable the child to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade.”  The Court found that IDEA FAPE and procedural requirements were met in the Rowley case.  

In other words, Amy was benefitting and was moving right along to the next grade, so it was all right for her to have far less access to classroom communication than her hearing peers.  If you are a parent of a deaf child, your heart is around your ankles now, no?

But here’s the silver lining.  Often overlooked in discussions about Rowley is the scathing three judge dissent, which starts:  “In order to reach its result in this case, the majority opinion contradicts itself, the language of the statute, and the legislative history.  Both the majority's standard for a ‘free appropriate education’ and its standard for judicial review disregard congressional intent.”  The dissenters write “The basic floor of opportunity . . . intended to eliminate the effects of the handicap, at least to the extent that the child will be given an equal opportunity to learn if that is reasonably possible.” 

Over time IDEA has been amended to conform to this point of view.  Today’s IDEA requires that students be provided access to the general education curriculum, the curriculum used by all students.  IDEA and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (currently known as the No Child Left Behind Act) require States, school districts, and schools to ensure students with disabilities are appropriately assessed and reach the same grade-level educational benchmarks as students without disabilities.  These entities are held accountable when students do not meet the benchmarks.  IDEA includes requirements that students receive services to help them make a successful transition from school to post-secondary education or a career.

Although it is implicit in IDEA that the Rowley majority opinion is no longer the correct interpretation, Rowley has not been overruled by the Supreme Court, and Congress has not explicitly declared that its standard no longer should apply.  Thus, some schools still have the lowered expectations that Rowley seems to allow.  The next reauthorization of IDEA should make clear that the Rowley standard is a thing of the past.  

(For an excellent legal analysis of Rowley’s relevance today, see Reexamining Rowley:  A New Focus in Special Education Law by Scott F. Johnson, Esq. 

Copyright 2010.  Do not reproduce without permission.

© Barbara Raimondo 2015