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Special Education Law: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)


The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (“IDEA”) was enacted to (1) “ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living”, (2) protect the rights of parents and children with disabilities, and (3) to provide assistant to government entities that provide educational benefits to children with disabilities.  20 U.S.C. § 1400(d)(1)(A)-(C); 20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(1)(A).  The Act provides funding to local educational entities “to pay for excess costs of providing special education and related services.”  Id. at § 1413(a)(2).  As such, the Act is divided into four subchapters.  This memo will focus on the first and second subchapters which address the general provisions of the statute and the impacts on elementary and secondary education respectively.  To promote the general principles of IDEA, the act requires students who qualify for services to receive an Individualized Education Program in a students’ Least Restrictive Environment.  Id.  at §1412(a)(4)-(5). 


Each state that receives funding must provide the U.S. Secretary of Education statistics on the percentage of children who receive a free appropriate public education, participate in regular education, attend classes in separate schools or facilities.  Id. at § 1418(a).  Under the terms of IDEA, Free Appropriate Public Education (“FAPE”) means special education services provided at public expense that meet the standards of the State Education Agency including appropriate preschool, elementary, or secondary schooling and conform to an Individualized Education Program.  Id. at § 1401(9); see 34 C.F.R. § 300.17.  Regulations clearly state that FAPE must be available to all children ages three through twenty-one.  34 C.F.R. § 300.101.

Important Statute Provisions

Individualized Education Plans

To ensure children receive FAPE, statutes require Individualized Education Programs (“IEP”) for students who qualify for special education services.  IEPs are written documents that are developed by a team consisting of the child (if appropriate), parents, general education teacher, special education teacher, any special service provider (speech therapists, occupational therapists, etc.), and a representative of the district called a Local Education Authority (LEA).  20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(A)-(B); 34 C.F.R. 300.321.  Each plan must state the child’s present level of performance, educational goals, services to be provided and frequency, and how the child’s progress will be monitored.  20 U.S.C. § 1414(d)(1)(A)-(B);  34 C.F.R. § 300.320.

To qualify for an IEP, a request for an evaluation must be made from the parent, child, state educational agency, or from a representative of the local school district.  20 U.S.C. § 1414(a).  Regardless of who makes the request, the parents must consent, however, there are procedures to perform an evaluation if the parents cannot be reached.  Id. at § 1414(a)(1)(D).  The evaluation requires assessments from technically sound assessments and the input of parents to determine if the child has a disability in all areas of a suspected disability.  Id. at § 1414(b)(2)-(3).  After the evaluations are complete, the IEP team determines if the child meets the criteria for an IEP:  (1) that the child has a disability and (2) that child needs special services to make progress due to the disability.  34 C.F.R. § 300.306.  The IEP team must meet annually to review the IEP and make any necessary modifications and a reevaluation must be completed every three years.  Id. at § 300.324(b); 34 C.F.R. § 300.303.

 To protect students and parents the code provides “Procedural Safeguards”.  20 U.S.C. § 1415.  These provisions require written notice to parents whenever the school district wants to make a change or rejects a suggested change by parents.  Id.  At any time if parents disagree with a decision of the district they may file a due process complaint.  Id. at § 1415(c).  After receiving the complaint, the school district has 10 days to respond.  Id. The parties must then be provided the opportunity to mediate the dispute at the cost of the district.  Id. at § 1415(e).  If mediation is unsuccessful, the states must provide an impartial due process hearing.  Id. at § 1415(f).  After exhaustion of these remedies, parents or school districts may appeal any decision through the civil courts. Id. at § 1415(g)-(i).

Practice Aids

Least Restrictive Environment

One of the key principles of IDEA is that students with disabilities be placed in their Least Restrictive Environment (“LRE”).  34 C.F.R. § 300.114.  This principle requires students with disabilities to be placed to the maximum extent appropriate in setting with non-disabled peers. Id.  The regulation provides a continuum of placements including “regular classes, special classes, special schools, home instruction, and instructions in hospitals and institutions.”  Id. at § 300.115.  The student with a disability must participate in general education classrooms in their home school unless the placement is harmful for students.  Id. at § 300.116.