Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law. While services delivered under IDEA may look a little different from one state to the next, states that want to use federal funding to educate their disabled children — and all states do! — are bound by federal statute and regulation.

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IDEA guarantees a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) to all school-aged children with disabilities. The law further states that the education will take place in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE); this means that children won’t be unnecessarily segregated from their typically developing peers.

Part C of IDEA also makes provisions for infants and children up to age three. This is important because intervention is most successful when it is begun at an early age. However, there are significant differences between Part B (which provides for children and youth) and Part C (which provides for infants and toddlers). Infants and toddlers have Individualized Family Service Plans as opposed to Individualized Educational Plans, or IEPs. Infants and toddlers are not guaranteed a free education. In fact, many states do charge a sliding scale for early intervention services.

Qualifying children between age three and five are generally provided with individualized preschool education through their local education agency.

Identification and Service Provision

Parents may have a role in identification; the level of involvement varies. Sometimes it’s the parent who first notices a problem, but often it’s a professional. State responsibility goes beyond providing an appropriate education to those who document the need. States are also obligated to identify children with disabilities – even those who do not attend public school. The identification process is referred to as Child Find.

Activities include providing information to the general public and maintaining ties with organizations where professionals are likely to come in contact with children who have disabilities. The Child Find obligation begins long before children reach school age ( Some children are identified soon after birth as having disabilities or as having medical conditions that typically result in delayed development. A common example is Down’s Syndrome.

Service provision under Part B is not a guarantee of later eligibility under Part C. However, some children receive IDEA services for as long as two decades. The law covers youth up to age 21. Adolescents with severe disabilities have often transitioned out of the public education system at a slightly older age than their peers. The transition process begins, though, by age 16.

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Part C includes multiple eligibility categories. However, the eligibility category does not determine the level or type of service. Services are determined on an individual basis according to student need.

Developing an Individualized Education Program

At the cornerstone of Part B is the IEP. This defines the child’s current level of functioning as well as the educational goals and the placement and services provided. IEPs are developed by a team. Teams include parents, special education teachers, classroom teachers, and representatives of the educational agency. IEPs are revisited on an annual basis. A special education teacher typically has the lead role in IEP development.

Parental Rights under IDEA

Parents are granted a number of specific rights under IDEA. Their voices are heard. While the IEP team as a whole may not always agree with the view or wishes of parents, they must follow protocol.

Those who encounter disagreement are strongly encouraged to work things out through good communication practices. In some cases, mediation is needed — or even court resolution. The latter is termed due process. Some parents of children with special needs benefit from having a professional advocate.

There are occasions when a public agency seeks mediation or due process. This can happen in rare instances when a parent does not consent to initial evaluation for a child who is enrolled in the public school system and is suspected of having a disability. (Consent to evaluation, though, does not imply consent to initial placement or services.)

Private Schools and IDEA

Educational agencies are required to spend a proportionate amount of IDEA funds on children outside the public education system. However, individual students do not have the legal right to the level of service they would receive in a public school setting. Nor do children who are voluntarily attending private school necessarily have the right to services. Parents have some recourses but not as many as they would have if they opted for public education. The public school system does not provide IEPs for children in private school.

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This assumes the private school placement is initiated by the parent or guardian. There are cases where a student has disabilities that are difficult for the educational unit to meet in a public school setting. An educational unit may determine that a private placement would be more appropriate. In this instance, the child is entitled to the same level of service that he or she would receive if attending a public school.

Ongoing Issues

Federal courts periodically hear cases related to special education. The court has found that children with disabilities have the same right to a free, appropriate education as their non-disabled peers. It typically takes more monetary resources to provide an appropriate education to those with special needs – sometimes far more; FAPE can include various therapies as well as a smaller child-adult ratios, special equipment, and transportation to a more appropriate school. However, the “appropriate education” will not necessarily be the best that money could buy – for those with disabilities and those without. What does an appropriate education look like? Cases will probably be heard on an occasional basis on into the future. The WrightLaw website includes information about special education law (