By Jan Baumel, M.S.
Even though parents receive a copy of special education rights and responsibilities at least once a year, often there is confusion about interpretation. Here are some recurring questions and answers about the protections offered under Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and its regulations require school districts to provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability. FAPE refers to special education and related services that are provided at no cost to the parent, meet state education standards, and are consistent with your child's Individualized Education Program (IEP). Eligible students, ages 3 to 21 (in most states) or until they graduate from high school with a regular diploma, have a right to FAPE.
FAPE doesn't mean the best possible education is offered at public expense to your child. Courts have defined "appropriate education" as a basic floor of opportunity. In other words, while IDEA guarantees equal opportunity, it does not guarantee a specific level of achievement or even a regular high school diploma.
When you and the school disagree on the meaning of "appropriate," communication becomes extremely important. Because appropriate is based on your child's IEP and the progress she's made, FAPE is determined on an individual basis. When making this decision, the following will be considered: growth on standardized tests from year to year, classroom performance, attendance, behavior, progress on goals and objectives, and report card grades.
For example, imagine your child with a learning disability has made year for year progress on tests and achieved her IEP goals and objectives but got a D on her report card. If she received the low grade because she skipped classes and didn't turn in homework, then her disability may not have been the cause of the poor grade. So it's quite possible she has received FAPE.
To be eligible, a child with a disability must meet one of the 13 (and in some states more) eligibility criteria and because of the disability need special education services to benefit from the general education program. If the IEP team decides your child meets these two requirements, then an IEP is developed. Even though the team, which includes you as parent, agrees your child has a disability, if he doesn't require special education services, then he is not eligible and has no legal entitlement to FAPE.
Federal special education laws and regulations require FAPE to be provided in the least restrictive environment (LRE). Since LRE is a relative concept, what is considered LRE for one child may not be LRE for another.
The IEP team must consider how to educate your child alongside kids without a disability to the maximum extent appropriate for both. The IEP team identifies the services your child needs to reach her goals and objectives and how they'll be provided.
Since special education is a set of services, rather than a specific place for your child to go, the general education classroom is considered the LRE for most kids. That means your child spends most of her school day in general education with "push in" or "pull out" support from the special education staff. In other words, your child's IEP may be implemented in the general education classroom or in a different classroom. IDEA also requires that a range of placements be available. Besides instruction in general education, other options for receiving special education services may be considered, including special classes, special schools, home instruction, and instruction in hospitals and institutions. Considering all IEP components, the IEP team must decide which one of these settings is the LRE for your child.
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