How “dicta” becomes part of the conventional wisdom….

Yesterday I told you about a case from Mississippi that provides a lesson on the importance of documentation.  The case holds another lesson also.  The federal court admonished the hearing officer for ignoring a phrase that the Supreme Court used in the Endrew F. case.  In that case the Court said that every student’s goals should be “appropriately ambitious.” 

The words “appropriately ambitious” from the Endrew F. case are what the lawyers call “dicta.” They do not represent the “holding” of the court. The holding is more important than the dicta. Lawyers who represent school districts need to make this distinction, to highlight that the 5th Circuit has repeatedly and emphatically “held” that Endrew F. does not require a change in the four-part test the 5th Circuit has relied on for decades. There is nothing in the four-part test about how ambitious an IEP should be.

But for educators, this case illustrates that “dicta” can get carried over into subsequent cases to the point that it becomes part of the conventional wisdom.  Rightly so.  Distinctions between “dicta” and the court’s “holding” are for lawyers to make if and when a case goes to court. For people sitting at the table for an ARD meeting, “appropriately ambitious” is an excellent standard.

Educators should always aim for an IEP that is “appropriately ambitious.”  Obviously, that term has to take into account the unique circumstances of the particular student the Team is planning for.  “Appropriately ambitious” is a Goldilocks standard to be applied to each individual student—not too easy, not too hard. Just right.

The term “appropriately ambitious” should come up in ARD meetings when the group is considering the annual goals.  After the ARD has established the present levels, and proposed a measurable annual goal, the question should be posed: “Is this goal appropriately ambitious for this student?”

Once there is agreement on the goals, the ARD can then discuss and decide what instructional and related services are necessary for the student to achieve the “appropriately ambitious” goals.

This gift from Mississippi is M.W. v. Rankin County Public Schools District, decided by the federal court for the Southern District of Mississippi on January 5, 2022.  It’s published in Special Ed Connection at 80 IDELR 136. 


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Tomorrow: a Panhandle mystery