Special Education is a Service, Not a Place

A Brief Overview

  • A student with a disability has the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). General education spaces and curriculum are LRE.
  • Services are generally portable, and special education is delivered to the student to enable access to FAPE within the LRE to the maximum extent appropriate.
  • Federal law protects a student’s right to FAPE within the LRE in light of a child’s circumstances, not for convenience of resource allocation.
  • The TIES Center at the University of Minnesota partnered with the Haring Center for Inclusive Education at the University of Washington to build a resource to support families and schools in writing IEPs that support students within general education classrooms: Comprehensive Inclusive Education: General Education and the Inclusive IEP.

Full Article

An ill-informed conversation about special education might go something like this:

  • Is your child in special education?
  • Yes.
  • Oh, so your student goes to school in that special classroom, by the office…in the portable…at the end of the hall…in a segregated room?

This conversation includes errors in understanding about what special education is, how it is delivered, and a student’s right to be included with general education peers whenever and wherever possible.

This article intends to clear up confusion. An important concept to understand is in the headline:

Special Education is a service, not a place!

Services are portable, so special education is delivered to the student in the placement that works for the student to receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), in light of the child’s circumstances. A student with a disability has the right to FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE).

General education is the Least Restrictive Environment. An alternative placement is discussed by the student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) team if access to FAPE is not working for the student in a general education setting with supplementary aids and supports.

Here is some vocabulary to further understanding:

  • FAPE: Free Appropriate Public Education. The entitlement of a student who is eligible for special education services.
  • IDEA: Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The entitlement to FAPE is protected by this law that allocates federal funds to support eligible students.
  • LRE: Least Restrictive Environment. A student eligible for special education services has a right to FAPE in the LRE to the maximum extent appropriate. General education is the least restrictive, and an alternative placement is discussed when data indicate that supplementary aids and supports are not working to enable access to FAPE in general education.
  • IEP: Individualized Education Program. School staff and family caregivers make up an IEP team. The team is responsible to develop a program reasonably calculated to enable a student to make progress appropriate toward IEP goals and on grade-level curriculum, in light of the child’s circumstances. Based on a student’s strengths and needs (discovered through evaluation, observation, and review of data), the team collaborates to decide what services enable FAPE and how to deliver those services. Where services are delivered is the last part of the IEP process, and decisions are made by all team members, unless family caregivers choose to excuse some participants or waive the right to a full team process.
  • Equity: When access is achieved with supports so that a person with a disability has a more level or fair opportunity to benefit from the building, service, or program. For example, a student in a wheelchair can access a school with stairs if there is also a ramp. A person with a behavioral health condition might need a unique type of “ramp” to access equitable learning opportunities within general education.
  • Inclusion: When people of all abilities experience an opportunity together, and individuals with disabilities have supports they need to be contributing participants and to receive equal benefit. Although IDEA does not explicitly demand inclusion, the requirement for FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment is how inclusion is built into special education process.
  • Placement: Where a student learns. Because the IDEA requires LRE, an IEP team considers equity and inclusion in discussions about where a student receives education. General education placement is the Least Restrictive Environment. An IEP team considers ways to offer supplementary aids and supports to enable access to LRE. If interventions fail to enable access to FAPE, the IEP team considers a continuum of placement alternatives—special education classrooms, alternative schools, home-bound instruction, day treatment, residential placement, or an alternative that is uniquely designed. 
  • Supplementary Aids and Supports: The help and productivity enhancers a student needs. Under the IDEA, a student’s unique program and services are intended to enable access to FAPE within LRE. Note that an aid or a support—a service that enables access—is not a place and therefore cannot be considered as an aspect of a restrictive placement. Having a 1:1 to support a student, for example, does not violate LRE. This topic was included in the resolution of a 2017 Citizen Complaint in Washington State. 

Note that the IDEA protects a student’s right to FAPE within LRE in light of a child’s circumstances, not in light of the most convenient way to organize school district resources. Placement is individualized to support a student’s strengths and abilities as well as the needs that are based in disability.

Tip: Families can remind the IEP team to Presume Competence and to boost a student from that position of faith. If the team presumes that a student can be competent in general education, how does it impact the team’s conversation about access to FAPE and placement?

LRE does not mean students with disabilities are on their own

To deliver FAPE, a school district provides lessons uniquely designed to address a student’s strengths and struggles (Specially Designed Instruction/SDI). In addition, the IEP team is responsible to design individualized accommodations and modifications.

  • Accommodations: Productivity enhancers. Examples: adjusted time to complete a task, assistive technology, a different mode for tracking an assignment or schedule, accessible reading materials with text-to-speech or videos embedded with sign language…
  • Modifications: Changes to a requirement. Examples: an alternative test, fewer problems on a worksheet, credit for a video presentation or vision board instead of a term paper.

Note that accommodations and modifications are not “special favors.” Utilizing these is an exercise of disability rights that are protected by the IDEA and civil rights/anti-discrimination laws that include the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (particularly Section 504 as it relates to school) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA—particularly Title II).

Related Services may support LRE and other aspects of equitable access

An IEP may include related services (occupational therapy, speech, nursing, behavioral health support, parent training, etc.). For some students, related services may be part of the support structure to enable inclusion in the Least Restrictive Environment. If an IEP includes related services, then the IEP team discusses how and where they are delivered.

A tool to support inclusion

The TIES Center at the University of Minnesota partnered with the Haring Center for Inclusive Education at the University of Washington to build a resource to support families and schools in writing IEPs that support students within general education classrooms: Comprehensive Inclusive Education: General Education and the Inclusive IEP.

The resource includes a variety of tools and recommendations for how school and family teams can approach their meetings and conversations to support the creation and provision of a program that recognizes:

  • Each child is a general education student. 
  • The general education curriculum and routines and the Individual Education Program (IEP) comprise a student’s full educational program.
  • the IEP for a student qualifying for special education services is not the student’s curriculum.

Keep in mind that IEP teams are required to include staff from general education and special education (WAC 392-172A-03095). All team members are required for formal meetings unless the family signs consent for those absences. Here’s a key statement from the TIES Center resource:

“The IEP is intended to support a student’s progress in general education curriculum and routines, as well as other essential skills that support a student’s independence or interdependence across school, home, and other community environments.  A comprehensive inclusive education program based upon these principles is important because without that focus, a student’s learning opportunities and school and post-school outcomes are diminished. In order to create an effective comprehensive inclusive education program, collaboration between general educators, special educators, and families is needed.”