Understanding Special Education Law & the IEP

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

Updated by , Attorney UC Law San Francisco
Updated 1/26/2023

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.

Is Your Child Eligible for Special Education?

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's not enough to have one of these disabilities. There must also be evidence that the disability adversely affects your child's educational performance.

What Is an 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.)

What Services Can an IEP Require?

The IEP should call for services that are necessary to ensure the child receives a "free and appropriate education" (FAPE). Depending on a child's needs, here are some services that might be included in an IEP:

  • assistive technology
  • audiology services
  • classroom aides
  • counseling
  • instruction in Braille
  • occupational therapy
  • psychological services
  • specialized academic instruction, or
  • speech-language pathology services.

How Does the IEP Process Work?

After the school or district decides that a child is eligible for services, the district will set up an IEP meeting to create an IEP. The meeting will take several hours.

The child's teacher, the parents, the student, and other staff members like special education teachers will make up the "IEP team" that writes the IEP at the meeting. Once the IEP is written, parents should be given a copy of the IEP and be asked for consent to begin services.

The school is responsible for measuring the students' progress toward annual goals as stated in the IEP. This progress and the IEP will be reviewed by the IEP team at least once a year.

How Often Should My Child Be Re-Evalauted?

Once a child is found eligible for special education, subsequent evaluations take place at least every three years. If you aren't 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).

Where Can I Find the Rules That School Districts Must Follow?

The Department of Education issues regulations interpreting the 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's 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 of Education's IDEA website at https://sites.ed.gov/idea/. Or, contact your state department of education, your school district, or local support groups to learn more about special education in your community.

Where Can I Find More Information About Special Education and the 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, get The Complete IEP Guide: How to Advocate for Your Special Ed Child, by Lawrence Siegel (Nolo).

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