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Rowley – Defining FAPE

Board of Education of the Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Amy Rowley (1982), 458 U.S. 176

A child’s right to a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”) was clearly defined in this landmark Supreme Court decision. The dispute arose over the requirements imposed by Congress upon States receiving federal funds under the “Education for All Handicapped Children Act,” which has since been renamed and revised, and is now known as the “Individuals with Disabilities Education Act” (“IDEA”).


Amy Rowley was a deaf student at Furnace Woods School in New York. When she began first grade, her parents asked that she be given a qualified sign-language interpreter in her classes. The school refused on the grounds that Amy was achieving “educationally, academically, and socially” without such assistance.

Amy’s parents appealed to the U.S. District Court after losing at the due process and review levels.

Findings of the U.S. District Court

The U.S. District Court found that Amy performed better than the average child, and it acknowledged the discrepancy between Amy’s potential and her actual achievement.

The Court determined that Amy understood “considerably less of what is going on in class than she would if she were not deaf,” and that, although Amy was technically passing, her disability was still adversely affecting her educational achievement.

The Court concluded that Amy was not currently receiving FAPE and defined FAPE as an “opportunity to achieve her full potential commensurate with the opportunity provided to other children.”

The school district appealed, and when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit upheld the decision, the school district appealed again to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Conclusions by the Supreme Court

The Supreme Court reversed the prior decision of the District Court and the Court of Appeals, and therefore denied Amy Rowley’s parents’ request for a sign-language interpreter.

The Court determined that Amy was receiving an “adequate” education, with personalized instruction and related services that met her educational needs.

The Supreme Court held that children are not entitled to the “best” education or one that will “maximize” their potential. Instead, the Court determined that the Act was designed to:
1) Identify and evaluate children with disabilities; and
2) Provide children with disabilities access to specialized instruction and related services that are individually designed to provide educational benefit.

The Supreme Court declared that courts must be careful to avoid imposing their view of preferable educational methods upon the States in their decisions.

Components of the Supreme Court’s definition of FAPE in Rowley

  • Personalized instruction
  • Sufficient support services to enable the child to benefit educationally
  • Provided at public expense
  • Meets the State’s educational standards, approximates regular education grade levels, and is in compliance with the child’s IEP
  • If the child is being educated in a general education classroom, the child should be able to achieve passing marks and advance from grade to grade

Third Circuit: New Jersey

The Third Circuit (New Jersey) has interpreted FAPE to mean a program that it will “provide him with a meaningful educational benefit.” N.R. v. Kingwood Twp. 205 F.3d 572 (3d. Cir. 2000).

Second Circuit: New York

The Second Circuit (New York) has further defined that FAPE must be “tailored to meet the unique needs of a particular child.” Walczak v. Fla. Union Free Sch. Dist., 142 F.3d 199 (2d Cir. 1998).