No Child Left Behind and School Choice Opportunities in Special Education

To benefit from NCLB, parents of kids with learning disabilities must understand key provisions in this federal education law.

By Candace Cortiella, The Advocacy Institute

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), the latest version of the largest federal law governing public education in the U.S., contains several key provisions important to students with learning disabilities (LD) and their parents. Understanding these opportunities is critical to maximizing the potential they hold for students with LD.

NCLB is intended to improve the academic achievement of all students attending the nation's public schools, with a particular focus on children of low-income families. As such, the Act's requirements regarding parental options apply to schools that accept federal grants under Title I of NCLB.

Candace Cortiella, founding director of The Advocacy Institute, and an expert on legislative issues that affect people with learning disabilities, talked about opportunities for public school choice under NCLB

Q: How can parents determine if their child's school is a "Title I school?"

A: Any school that is eligible for and accepts funds under any programs authorized by Title I of NCLB is a "Title I school" for purposes of the parental choice provisions of the law. Schools may receive grants to support targeted services for specific children or school-wide programs that include all children in the school. Parents can determine if their child's school is a "Title I school" by searching the Public Schools database supplied by the National Center for Education Statistics.

To find information about the Title I status of your child's school:

  1. Visit the National Center for Education Statistics search page.
  2. Enter the school name in the "name" field.
  3. Click "Public Schools" under "Institutions."
  4. Click "Search."
  5. Click on the School name in the search results.
  6. Click on "More information" at the top of the school data page.
  7. The school's Title I status is listed in the "School Characteristics" section of the page.

Q: What kind of school choice is available to parents under NCLB?

A: NCLB requires that schools make steady progress toward the ultimate goal of all students performing at a "proficient" level in reading, math, and science by the year 2014. This progress is defined as "adequate yearly progress," or AYP. Schools that fail to meet AYP goals for two consecutive years must be identified as "in need of improvement." The school district must promptly notify the parents of each child enrolled in any school identified as "in need of improvement."

Any Title I school designated "in need of improvement" must offer all children attending that school the opportunity to attend a school in the district that has met its AYP goals. If all schools in the district have been designated as "in need of improvement," the school district is strongly encouraged to establish agreements with other districts that would allow students to attend schools in those districts not deemed "in need of improvement."

Parents must be provided information about the performance and quality of each school included in their choice options.

Q: Do the choice options for students with disabilities differ in any way from those of other students?

A: Students with disabilities (covered under the IDEA or Section 504) must be offered the opportunity to attend a school that has not been identified as "in need of improvement." Districts must ensure that such students are provided a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) consistent with the IDEA, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and Title II of the Americans with Disablities Act, in their schools of choice.

However, these students do not have to be offered the choice of the same schools offered to non-disabled students. Districts may limit the choice options to those schools that have the ability to provide FAPE. However, as part of the required notice to parents, districts must explain why the choices made available to them may have been limited.

Q: If a student with a disability chooses to transfer to another school as a result of the choice options, does the student's current Individualized Education Program (IEP) or 504 Plan remain in effect?

A: The school of choice may adopt the existing IEP, in which case no new IEP is required since the move is considered a "change in location," not a "change in placement." This means, however, that the receiving school will execute all aspects of the existing IEP, including all specialized instructional services (including methodologies such as specialized reading programs), related services, participation with non-disabled students, appropriate accommodations, and inclusion in state- and district-wide assessments of student achievement.

If any of the services in the current IEP will change as a result of the school transfer, then the school of choice must convene an IEP team meeting and develop a new IEP that meets the student's needs.

Q: Must students with disabilities be provided transportation to the school of choice?

A: The district must pay for or provide transportation to the new school for all students who request it, including students with disabilities. If the available funding is not sufficient to provide transportation to all students requesting a transfer, the district must give priority to the lowest-achieving eligible students from low-income families. However, districts may not limit the opportunity to transfer because of transportation funding limits.

Q: How long may students with disabilities remain at the school of choice?

A: Students must be permitted to remain at their school of choice until completing the highest grade in that school. However, once the student's home school is no longer identified as "in need of improvement" for two consecutive years, the district is no longer required to pay for or provide transportation for the student. In such cases, transportation may be incorporated into the IEPs of students with disabilities as a related service, or the choice school could become the school placement determined by the IEP team.

Find our how your state is doing on the issue of school choice.

  1. Visit the No Child Left Behind database maintained by the Education Commission of the States.
  2. Select your state to access detailed information on this and other important NCLB requirements!

Endnote: The author wishes to thank Suzanne Heath for her review of this article. Heath is co-author (with Peter and Pamela Wright) of the publication Wrightslaw: No Child Left Behind.

Reviewed January 2010

Candace Cortiella's work as Director of the nonprofit The Advocacy Institute focuses on improving the lives of people with learning disabilities, through public policy and other initiatives. The mother of a young adult with learning disabilities, she lives in the Washington, D.C., area.