Special Education FAQ

What is the IDEA?

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that requires states and school districts to provide free, appropriate educations to eligible students with disabilities.  Children from birth through graduation or age 21, whichever is later, are covered by that law


What is a free appropriate public education?

A free appropriate public education (FAPE) is a program of special education and related services individually designed to meet the unique needs of the student and to yield meaningful educational benefit,   provided at no cost to the student or parents, and delivered in conformance with a written Individualized Education Program (IEP) developed by a team that includes educational professionals and the parents.


How can I find out if my child is eligible to get IDEA services?

Ask your school district, in writing, to evaluate your child for eligibility.  If you already have private evaluations that establish a disability, include them with your request.  The district should then either send a written Permission to Evaluate form for your approval detailing the kinds of testing it wants to do, or send you an invitation to a meeting to discuss why it does not believe an evaluation is necessary.  You are always free to have private evaluations done on your own to submit to the district for its review.

The evaluation will determine whether your child meets one of the categories of disability under IDEA:  Autism, Deafness, Deaf-blindness, Hearing impairment, Mental retardation, Multiple disabilities, Orthopedic impairment, Serious Emotional Disturbance, Specific learning disability, Speech or language impairment, Traumatic brain injury, Visual impairment (including blindness), or Other health impairment (including conditions like ADD/ADHD).  The evaluation will go on to determine whether, because of that disability, your child requires special education and related services. If your child has a disability, but it can be addressed successfully with accommodations and modifications, he or she may be eligible for a Section 504 Service Plan instead of an IEP.


What is Section 504?

Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 is a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of disability in programs or by entities receiving federal funds.  In addition to barring discrimination against individuals who have disabilities, Section 504 also forbids discrimination or retaliation against people who advocate for them.  People are considered to be disabled if they have a physical or mental impairment that limits one or more major life activities. For everyone, but especially for children, learning is a major life activity.  Other major life activities include caring for one’s self, performing manual tasks, walking, seeing, hearing, speaking, breathing, and working.

Students who have a disability that needs to be addressed by accommodations or modifications in school, but not by specially designed instruction, may be well-served by a Section 504 Plan.  

How can I find out if my child is eligible to get services under Section 504?

The evaluation process is very similar to the one for determining eligibility under the IDEA.  Start by asking your district for an evaluation. Every child who is eligible for service under the IDEA is also covered under Section 504.


If my child is eligible for special services, must they be provided in a special education class?

No.  A school district must make every reasonable effort to provide services where a student would ordinarily be in the absence of a disability (a “typical setting”). This “least restrictive environment” requirement is a very strong one. Students with disabilities must be included with their typical peers to the maximum extent appropriate.


Who determines what services my child is entitled to?

The services to be provided must be based on an appropriate evaluation and determined by a team of educational professionals that very much includes the parents.  The team will develop a written Individualized Education Plan (IEP) for your child’s education. The plan will include your child’s present educational and functional levels, measurable annual goals with expected levels of achievement during the IEP term, specially designed instruction, related services (such as speech therapy and occupational therapy), supports for school personnel (such as additional training or consultation with specialists necessary to the delivery of your child’s IEP services), and a recommendation for placement.  The IEP will be issued to you for your approval, usually by means of a document called a Notice of Recommended Placement (NOREP). A NOREP should always be accompanied by an IEP.


What can I do if I don’t agree?

You can choose from a variety of further options to resolve the disagreement, including asking for an additional meeting, mediation, or a due process hearing. Each of the options can work well in particular situations, and less well in others. A consultation with a skilled advocate or attorney can help you decide which will work best for you.


My child is in a private school.  Do I have any rights?

Yes, but they vary depending on the circumstances.  Students with disabilities placed in private schools by their districts have all the same rights that public school students have.  Those placed by their parents have the right to dual enrollment in the public schools to receive special educations services, and to services accessed through the private schools under a state law that provides funding for some kinds of support .  You have the right to ask your district to evaluate your child for special education services even if your child attends private school. You do not have to agree to place your child in public school in order to get that evaluation.