Special education: a practical primer

Learn about your rights and responsibilities, as well as what to expect, when you enroll your child in special education.

By GreatSchools Staff

In this guide you'll learn about the basics of special education, your child's rights, and how an individualized education program (IEP) is created.

What rights does special education law provide?

The most important federal law governing special education is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The goal of the act is to ensure a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) for children with disabilities. It was passed in 1975 and updated in 1997 and 2004. The current act is officially called the Individuals With Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, but most people call it IDEA 2004.

Before the passage of the law, most schools placed special education students in self-contained special day classes. Many students were enrolled in special schools rather than in their neighborhood schools. Some students would eventually be "mainstreamed," or moved into general education classes, if they showed sufficient progress and evidence that they could keep up with those classes.

But IDEA influenced many schools to rethink their basic approach to special education. The law requires schools to educate all students in what is known as the "least restrictive environment." Thus many schools practice "inclusion," which involves educating special needs students in the schools and classrooms they would otherwise attend, to the maximum extent appropriate. It involves bringing special services to the child in the regular classroom rather than "pulling out" the student to receive special services. Proponents of inclusion believe that students belong first in the regular education environment because it is often better for students socially and academically. They believe students should be removed from that environment only when necessary services can't be provided in that environment.

Most schools strike a balance between teaching special education students in regular education classrooms when possible and pulling them out for portions of the day to work with a specialist in what's usually called the "resource room."

Specific rights

Who is covered by the law?

IDEA recognizes 13 categories of special education needs:

To qualify for special education, the student must have one of the above special needs. That special need must also cause the child to require special education and related services to benefit from the general educational program. School districts use different evaluation standards for determining whether children need special education to benefit from the education program.

Counties, districts and schools all have different programs, depending on the numbers and needs of special education students. Some have entire schools devoted to special education, some have special day classes (classes consisting only of special education students that generally stay together for the day) in neighborhood schools, and others provide resource-room instruction, in which a student meets with a specialist for part of the day.

But regardless of what's already implemented in your school or district, your child has the right to a free, appropriate public education (FAPE). Appropriate means that the education provided meets your child's educational needs, regardless of cost, and that he is educated in the least restrictive environment possible. Keep in mind that the law does not require that your child receive the best education money can buy; appropriate has been defined as a basic floor of education.

How do I get services for my child?

Combine composure with persistence

Many parents who navigate the special education process describe it as emotional. You may experience frustration with complicated paperwork and jargon. You might feel defensive as you work with educators to balance available resources with your child's unique needs. As you work to ensure the quality of your child's education, you might feel that if you don't fight for your child's rights, nobody will.

Remember, somewhere amid the school's red tape and your resolve, you and the school personnel all have the same goal of helping your child succeed. As you work with the educators in your child's school and district, you're likely to get the best results with a combination of composure and persistence.

Where to begin and what to expect

There's not just one clear-cut path that students take toward special education enrollment, but here's a typical scenario: A child without any obvious learning difficulties starts kindergarten and participates in the regular education program. As the early years unfold and school becomes more academically challenging, a teacher notices that the student has difficulty — either socially or academically — participating in the regular program. The teacher contacts the parents and convenes a meeting of a student study team (SST), which usually includes the teacher, the parents and a special education teacher. The team's first goal is to determine whether the student can be accommodated in a general classroom environment without special education. If not, the team calls for a formal evaluation of the student's skills and learning patterns. If the evaluation recommends special education, the next step is the creation of an individualized education program.

Note: Your district is required by law to have your informed written consent before placing your child in special education and before removing your child from special education. In fact, every step along the way requires your approval.

Your child's initial evaluation: Pinpointing learning difficulties

Before an IEP is designed for your child, he must undergo a formal evaluation, which involves both educational and psychological assessments. The evaluation will determine what special learning disability your child may have. Guidelines for the evaluation:

If the school district finds your child does not have a disability severe enough to require special education but you disagree, you have the right to get an "independent educational evaluation," for which you can select the person who will do the testing. The school district must decide to either have your child evaluated at no cost to you or show at a hearing that its evaluation is appropriate. If the school district chooses the hearing and it is determined that the school district's evaluation was correct, then you are obligated to cover the costs of any independent educational evaluation you had conducted.

Remember, one purpose of the initial evaluation is to gather diagnostic information to be used in developing an IEP.

Moving to a new school

If your child has already been participating in a special education program and you're moving to a new school, you should notify the new school about your child's special education needs. Your previous school will forward your child's records, including all IEP documents; you should also keep copies on hand. The new school can rely on the current evaluation and IEP, or it may propose a new evaluation and program. The new school is not required to accept your child's most recent evaluation.

What is an IEP, and how does it work?

An individualized education program is a plan for your child's education that details classroom accommodations and modifications. It includes goals and a description of how these goals will be measured and met. It describes the services your child will receive. The IEP must include an explanation of the extent, if any, to which your child will not be participating in regular classes and activities. It should specifically state the percentage of each school day that will be spent in the general education classroom. Since IDEA 2004 also requires that students with disabilities participate in district and statewide assessments, the IEP must state whether the student will take the standardized tests, and whether there will be any accommodations (such as extra time or a different testing environment). The IEP is created by a team, which should include several participants:

An IEP meeting is held each year to make sure that the student's goals are being met and to make any necessary changes to the plan. Every three years a thorough reevaluation is made to determine whether the student needs different services and to assess progress.

Preparing for the IEP meeting

The IEP process can be one of the parent's most emotional and stressful experiences; it's important to prepare for the meeting so that you feel at ease with the terminology, laws and requirements.

Your input is integral. You should go into an IEP meeting knowing the process and laws associated with the IEP development and what your child is entitled to under IDEA 2004. Most importantly, the school must appropriately address your child's educational needs without regard to the availability or cost of needed services.

Remember to:

Most important, don't be afraid to disagree with the professionals. You know your child better than anyone, and your faith in your child's abilities may be a more powerful force than any assessment results.

Once the IEP has been created and your child's program is underway, keep in contact with the teacher in accordance with your agreement.

If it seems like your child isn't making expected progress toward the annual goals of the IEP, the IEP team must meet and revise the plan. A new evaluation should be conducted every three years to determine whether your child continues to have a disability and to examine his educational needs and levels of performance.

Reviewed February 2010