IDEA: The Foundation of Special Education

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is a federal law that was passed in 1990 and has been amended. The IDEA provides children with qualifying disabilities, from birth to age 21, with the right to a free public education that is specifically designed to meet their unique, individual needs.

Some important concepts carried over from the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, passed in 1975. That was the first United States law that required schools to provide Special Education to all children with disabilities. PAVE has an article about special education history.

This article provides an overview of the IDEA, which is unique as a law that provides an individual entitlement. Entitlement means that a child with unique needs gets those needs served on an individual basis, not based on a system or program that’s already built and available. The strengths and challenges of a specific student are assessed, and a team including family members and professionals works together to design a program.

The local school district is responsible for providing the program—specialized instruction, services, accommodations and anything else that the team has identified as necessary to provide the student with access to an appropriate education.

FAPE is an important acronym to learn!

The first principle of the IDEA is the right to a Free Appropriate Public Education, FAPE. Figuring out how to provide FAPE is the work of the school and family team that supports a student with a disability. PAVE provides a video Introduction to Special Education that includes more information about FAPE.

Progress measurements are guaranteed under the IDEA to ensure that the student finds meaningful success, in light of the circumstances of disability. If a neighborhood school cannot provide the services and programming to guarantee FAPE, then the school district is responsible to create a program and placement that does meet the student’s needs. PAVE has an article about the placement decision process.

The federal law drives how states design their own special education policies and procedures. Title 34, Part 104 is the non-discrimination federal statute under the Office for Civil Rights Department of Education. In Washington State, rules for the provision of special education are in Chapter 392-172A of the Washington Administrative Code (WAC).

The IDEA considers the whole life of a person with a disability

The IDEA is written in three parts: A, B and C. Part A describes the general goals and purpose of the law. The right of a child with disabilities to receive an education that prepares that child for adult life is stated in Part A: ​

“Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society…

“Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities.”

Part B of the IDEA covers children ages 3 through 21—or until graduation from high school. Students who receive services through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) are covered under Part B. The six principles listed at the end of this article describe IDEA’s Part B protections.

Part C protects children Birth to age 3 who need family support for early learning. ​The disability category of developmental delay overlaps early learning and IEP and can qualify a child for free, family-focused services to age 3 and school-based services through age 8. PAVE has an article about the transition between Part C and Part B services.

To qualify for an IEP, a student meets criteria in one of the IDEA’s 14 disability categories:

  • Autism: A student doesn’t need a medical diagnosis to be evaluated in the area of autism. If features from the autism spectrum of disability may significantly impact access to education, then the school can assess those features to determine eligibility and special education needs.
  • Emotional Disturbance: Anxiety, Depression, Serious Mental Illness and/or behavior disabilities can fall under this category, which Washington schools often refer to as Emotional Behavioral Disability (EBD). PAVE has an article about mental health in school.
  • Specific Learning Disability: Issues related to dyslexia, dysgraphia, dyscalculia or other learning deficits can be educationally assessed. A formal diagnosis is not required for a student to qualify under this category. A Washington law taking full effect in 2021-22 requires schools to screen for dyslexia: See PAVE’s article about dyslexia.
  • Other Health Impairment: ADHD, Tourette’s Syndrome and other medical diagnoses are captured within this broad category, often shorted to OHI or Health-Impaired on the IEP document.
  • Speech/Language Impairment: This category can include expressive and/or receptive language disorders in addition to issues related to diction. Social communication deficits might qualify a student for speech services.
  • Multiple Disabilities: Students with complex medical and learning needs can meet criteria in this category.
  • Intellectual Disability: A student with Down Syndrome or another genetic or cognitive disorder might meet criteria in this category.
  • Orthopedic Impairment: OI refers to physical disabilities that impact access to education.
  • Hearing Impairment: Note this is a separate category from deafness or deaf-blindness, as educational testing and identified needs may differ.
  • Deaf blindness
  • Deafness
  • Visual Impairment/Blindness
  • Traumatic Brain Injury: Brain Injury Alliance of WA is a good place for resources to better understand TBI and how to support a student with medical and educational needs.
  • Developmental Delay (ages 0-8): This category can qualify a child for early learning (Birth-3) services in addition to IEP services through age 8. By age 9, a new evaluation may determine eligibility in another category for IEP services to continue.

Educational evaluations ask 3 key questions

The disability must have an adverse impact on learning. Not every student who has a disability and receives an evaluation will qualify for an IEP. Following procedures described by the IDEA, school districts evaluate students to consider 3 key questions:

  1. Does the student have a disability?
  2. Does the disability adversely impact education?
  3. Does the student need Specially Designed Instruction (SDI)?

When each answer is yes, a student qualifies for services. In each area of eligibility, specialized instruction is recommended to help the student overcome the impact of the disability in order to access FAPE. PAVE provides comprehensive articles about evaluation and IEP process.

IDEA’s Primary Principles:

  1. Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE): Students with disabilities who need a special kind of teaching or other help have the right to an education that is not only free but also “appropriate,” designed just for them. Under IDEA rules, schools provide special education students with “access to FAPE,” so that’s a common way to talk about whether the student’s program is working.
  2. Appropriate Evaluation: The IDEA requires schools to take a closer look at children with potential disabilities. PAVE has an article about the Child Find Mandate. There are rules about how quickly those evaluations get done. The results provide information that the school and parents use to make decisions about how the child’s education can be improved. See PAVE’s article about evaluation process.
  3. Individualized Education Program (IEP): An IEP is a dynamic program, not a packet of paper. PAVE provides a short video overview of IEP process. The document that describes a student’s special education program is carefully written and needs to be reviewed at least once a year by a team that includes school staff and parents/guardians. Every student on an IEP gets some extra help from teachers, but the rest of the program depends on what a student needs to learn. Learning in school isn’t just academic subjects. Schools also help students learn social and emotional skills and general life skills. By age 16, an IEP includes a plan for life beyond high school, and helping the student make a successful transition into life after high school becomes a primary goal of the IEP.
  4. Least Restrictive Environment (LRE): The IDEA says that students should be in class with non-disabled classmates “to the maximum extent appropriate.” That means that regular classrooms and school spaces are first choice as the “least restrictive” places. If the school has provided extra help in the classroom but the special education student still struggles to be successful, then the IEP team considers other options, such as a structured learning classroom. The school explains placement and LRE in writing on the IEP document. PAVE has an article about LRE.
  5. Parent and Student Participation: The IDEA and state regulations about IEP team membership make it clear that parents or legal guardians are equal partners with school staff in making decisions about their student’s education. When the student turns 18, educational decision-making is given to the student. The school does its best to bring parents and students into the meetings, and there are specific rules about how the school provides written records and meeting notices (WAC 392-172A-03100).
  6. Procedural Safeguards: The school provides parents with a written copy of their rights at referral and yearly thereafter. A copy of the procedural safeguards is available online from the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI), the guidance agency for Washington schools. Parents may receive procedural safeguards from the school any time they request them. They also may receive a copy if they file a Citizen Complaint or Due Process. Procedural safeguards are offered when a school removes a student for more than 10 days in a school year as part of a disciplinary action. When parents and schools disagree, these rights describe the actions that a parent can take informally or formally. PAVE provides a webinar called Parents as Partners that describes some of the procedural safeguards and offers communication strategies when parents and schools disagree.

PAVE provides information, resources and, in some circumstances 1:1 support through our Parent Training and Information (PTI) center. To get help, reach out through our Help Request Form or by calling 800-572-7368.