Special Education Law & the IEP

An overview of special education laws, IEP, and your child's special education rights.

By , Attorney

Special education laws give children with disabilities and their parents important rights. Specifically, the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) gives families of special education children the right to:

  • have their child assessed or tested to determine special education eligibility and needs
  • inspect and review school records relating to their child
  • attend an annual "individualized education program" (IEP) meeting and develop a written IEP plan with representatives of the local school district, and
  • resolve disputes with the school district through an impartial administrative and legal process.

Eligibility Under IDEA

Every school district is legally required to identify, locate, and evaluate children with disabilities (20 U.S.C. §1412(a)(3)). After the evaluation, the district may provide the child with specific programs and services to address special needs.

IDEA defines "children with disabilities" as individuals between the ages of three and 22 with one or more of the following conditions:

  • intellectual disability
  • hearing impairment (including deafness)
  • speech or language impairment
  • visual impairment (including blindness)
  • serious emotional disturbance
  • orthopedic impairment
  • autism
  • traumatic brain injury
  • specific learning disability, or
  • other health impairment
    (20 U.S.C. §1401(3); 34 C.F.R. §300.8).

For your child to qualify for special education under IDEA, it is not enough to have one of these disabilities. There must also be evidence that the disability adversely affects your child's educational performance.

Once a child is found eligible for special education, subsequent evaluations take place at least every three years. If you are not satisfied with the initial evaluation or you feel your child's disability or special education needs have changed, your child is entitled to more frequent assessments, and even outside or independent assessments (20 U.S.C. §1414; 34 C.F.R. § §300.301-306).

Individualized Education Program (IEP)

Under IDEA, special education develops and implements an individualized education program, or IEP, that meets your child's unique needs. The acronym IEP refers to several related things:

  • an initial meeting where the school district determines whether or not your child is eligible for special education
  • a yearly meeting where you and school representatives develop your child's educational plan, and
  • a detailed written description of your child's educational program.

Every written IEP document must include the same information, although forms will vary from one school district to another.

  • Current educational status -- a description of your child's current "academic achievement and functional performance" in school.
  • Goals and objectives -- "measurable annual goals" designed to meet your child's specific educational needs.
  • Instructional setting or placement -- a determination of the situation and services needed to provide your child with an appropriate education.
  • Transition services -- considerations of the vocational and placement needs for a child who is 16 or older.
  • Due process -- your right to take any dispute you have with your child's school district to a neutral third party for resolution. (Parents of children who are not in special education do not have this right.)

For more information on IEPs, read Nolo's article Preparing for the IEP Meeting.

Special Education Law: 2005 Changes

In 2005, Congress made important modifications to IDEA. While most special education rights and procedures remain the same under this new law, there have also been numerous and significant changes. For instance, the new law affects:

  • teacher qualifications
  • teaching methods
  • transition services
  • how a school may identify a child with a learning disability, and
  • the content, development, review, and revision of IEPs.

In 2006, the Department of Education issued regulations interpreting the revised IDEA. These regulations add requirements and rules that go well beyond the scope of the actual law. If you have a child in special education, it is important that you understand how the regulations affect your child's rights. You can download and read the text of the regulations on the website of the Department's Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) at www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/osers. Or, contact your state department of education, your school district, or local support groups to find out how these changes will affect special education in your community.

Sources of Information About Special Education and IDEA

  • Your local school district. The district is required by the IDEA to provide you with a copy of federal and state statutes and regulations and any relevant policies. Be sure to request this information, along with the school district's IEP form and any parent guide that's available.
  • Local parent support groups. In many communities, local organizations offer support and information for parents of children in special education. The groups in your area may have helpful information about your school district and how it complies with IDEA.
  • U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS). For information on the IDEA and special education law, visit OSERS at www.ed.gov/about/offices/list/osers.
  • Your state department of education. The federal IDEA is binding on all states. The federal government provides financial assistance to the states, which are responsible for making sure the local school districts comply with the IDEA. Most states have laws that generally parallel IDEA. States can provide children with more, not fewer, protections than IDEA does. For more information on state special education laws and regulations, contact your state department of education. Your school district can give you the appropriate office to contact.

For more information on the IDEA, including the 2005 revisions, get The Complete IEP Guide: How to Advocate for Your Special Ed Child, by Lawrence Siegel (Nolo).

Or, if your child has a learning disability (as opposed to another type of disability), read Nolo's IEP Guide: Learning Disabilities, in which Lawrence Siegel tailors his discussion of special education and IEPs specifically for the parents of children with learning disabilities.

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