The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently ruled in Crofts v. Issaquah School District that the District had not violated the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) in a case challenging the District's evaluation for special education eligibility and its individualized education plans (“IEP”), and alleging that the District therefore failed to provide a free appropriate public education (“FAPE”). Further, the Court held that the District was not required to provide an independent educational evaluation (“IEE”) at the public's expense and that the administrative law judge (“ALJ”) properly discounted expert witness testimony. As such, the Crofts decision packs a punch, providing clarification regarding a myriad of special education topics of critical importance to school districts as they evaluate students and draft IEPs that stand up to potential scrutiny.
Layna Crofts requested that the District evaluate her daughter, A.S., for special education eligibility after she received an outside evaluation indicating that she might have dyslexia. The District evaluated A.S. under the “specific learning disability” category, which statutorily encompasses conditions such as dyslexia. The District determined that A.S. was indeed eligible for services in reading and writing and created an IEP targeting her deficiencies in those areas.
Crofts argued that the District should have evaluated A.S. specifically for dyslexia, that the District improperly denied her request for an IEE, and that the District should have used her preferred teaching method for reading. Crofts relied upon the testimony of a “dyslexia expert,” who recommended Crofts' preferred teaching method. In addition, Crofts argued, based on her expert witness testimony, that the goals in A.S.'s IEPs were not calculated to help her progress to the level she could potentially achieve, and that A.S. was not provided a FAPE because her IEPs were not created to specifically address dyslexia.
The District satisfied the IDEA by evaluating A.S. under the “specific learning disability” category and did not violate its obligation to evaluate her in all areas of suspected disability when it did not formally evaluate her for dyslexia.
The Ninth Circuit clarified that the IDEA specifically defines “specific learning disability” to include dyslexia. The Court determined that Crofts' insistence that the District should have evaluated A.S. for dyslexia and not a “specific learning disability” was based on a distinction without a difference, as the District had conducted a battery of assessments to evaluate A.S.'s reading and writing skills, areas that dyslexia can impact, and incorporated the outside evaluator's assessment, which tested for other areas often included within the term dyslexia. Further, the Court noted that Crofts did not identify any other assessment the District should have administered. As such, the Court held that the District was not required to provide an IEE at the public's expense.
The District did not deny A.S. a FAPE by failing to use Crofts' preferred teaching method for reading.
The Ninth Circuit held that a school district is not required to use the methodology a parent prefers when providing special education services for a child. Instead, the Court noted that districts are entitled to deference in deciding what programming is appropriate as a matter of educational policy.
The District's IEPs were reasonably calculated to enable A.S. to make appropriate progress in light of her disability.
The Ninth Circuit ruled that districts need not specify an instructional method unless that method is necessary to enable a student to receive a FAPE. The Court quoted the United States Supreme Court in emphasizing that, rather, in order to meet its substantive obligations, a district must merely provide an IEP that is “reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child's circumstances.”
The Ninth Circuit found that Crofts had not demonstrated that her preferred teaching method for reading was necessary for A.S. to receive a FAPE. On the contrary, the Court noted that the record showed that A.S.'s IEPs set appropriate goals based on the conducted assessments that were reasonably calculated to target the specific areas in which she struggled. The Court also noted that A.S. made appropriate educational progress without Crofts' preferred teaching method, and that the fact that she did not meet all grade-level expectations was not determinative because the IDEA does not require students with special education services to perform on par with students receiving general education instruction.
The ALJ properly discounted expert witness testimony.
The Ninth Circuit afforded deference to the ALJ's decision to discount the expert witness testimony. The Court cited the fact that the expert witness had not evaluated A.S. or spoken to her teachers in reaching her conclusions. The Court also found unconvincing Crofts' argument that the expert did not need to meet A.S. in order to provide competent testimony on the unique needs of students with dyslexia generally, pointing to the expert's lack of special education credentials and inexperience in writing IEPs.
Parker & Covert LLP has extensive experience handling special education matters. Should you have any questions regarding the Crofts decision or its impact on your district, please do not hesitate to contact us via email or telephone.
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