Stuff You Should Know About Special Education Law: An Overview

Stuff You Should Know About Special Education Law: An Overview

Special education law is a mystery to a lot of lawyers and a lot of parents. It really only comes up when a child has special needs and requirements in order to thrive in a school environment. This is the first in a series of posts designed to shed a little light on the topic. This post will be a broad overview of the law, with subsequent posts dealing in more detail with each aspect. So let's dive in.

The Law

IDEA 2004

The main federal law governing special needs education is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (aka IDEA 2004). There were earlier laws dealing with these issues, but IDEA 2004 controls now and is the one worth getting into.

The purpose of the law is to mandate equality and accountability in public schools nationwide. The law provides that all children with disabilities are taught by highly qualified teachers using research based instruction. School districts are required to provide children with disabilities with Individualized Education Programs (IEP's) tailored to their disability. Schools are also required to provide a "free appropriate education", meaning that your child should receive appropriate services without regard to the cost absorbed by the school.

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973

Section 504 prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities. It essentially ensures that every child has equal access to education through accomodations or modifications. It has fewer procedural safeguards than IDEA 2004 but it provides a clear and unequivocal requirement that schools provide accomodations and equal access.

Important Concepts

Free Appropriate Education

Every child with disabilities is entitled to a free education that is appropriate for their disability. This does not mean that schools must provide the best educatiion, but they must provide a free appriopriate education and make it available to the child before their third birthday.

Child Find

"Child Find" is a requirement that each state develop and implement a way to find, identify, and evaluate children that may need special education or related services. Illinois accomplishes this through annual screenings for children under five, ongoing review by the child's teachers, and coordination with early intervention schools.

Least Restrictive Environment

Students with disabilities should be educated alongside other students who are not disabled. The school is only supposed to remove disabled children when no other appropriate options are avalable.

Education Rights Holder

A child's biological or adoptive parent is typical the person who has all education decision making rights in special educaton matters. This person is called the "education rights holder" and has full decision making authority concerning the child's education. Other people may be the education rights holder, but only if a parent's rights have been terminated or the child is living in a youth shelter or group home.

Individualized Education Programs (IEP's)

One major effect of IDEA 2004 is the requirement that public school districts utilize Individualizd Education Programs for students with disabilities. IEP's are programs designed by the school district to meet the specific educational requirements of each student. Each IEP needs to contain (if applicable to the situation):

  • A statement of your child's present levels of academic achievement and functional performance;
  • Annual goals for your child's academic performance;
  • A metric to measure whether your child is progressing toward those goals;
  • A description of the services your child will receive in order to meet those goals;
  • A description of the accomodations your child will receive to allow for better measurement of his progress; and
  • A statement describing any services your child will need to transition to adulthood and self sufficiency.

I will dig deeper into the IEP itself in a later post.

This is only a very broad overview of special education law concepts. I will get further into the weeds in future posts.