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 is the 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.
  • No student rights are waived due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The National Association of State Directors of Special Education provides a brief about LRE during the pandemic. The NASDSE brief includes examples of what LRE might look like for students doing distance learning or in a hybrid model of learning.

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 Zoom room?

Regardless of whether education is happening in a school building or virtually, 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?

What does FAPE within LRE mean during COVID?

No student rights have been waived at the federal or state level due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Regardless of whether a student with an IEP receives learning from home, at school, or in a hybrid model that includes both, FAPE in the Least Restrictive Environment is a protected right under the IDEA.

The National Association of State Directors of Special Education (NASDSE) provides a brief about LRE during the pandemic. The NASDSE brief includes examples of what LRE might look like for students doing distance learning and/or receiving some learning within school.

“The removal from the general education environment only occurs if the nature or severity of the disability is such that education in the general education classes with the use of supplementary aides and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily,” the NASDSE brief states.

“It is important to note that while the COVID-19 pandemic has not changed the individual student’ right to LRE it has changed how the general education system operates. These operational changes require school systems to determine how they will maintain each individual student’s LRE in the new context in which they are operating.”

Tip: Family caregivers can ask what general education looks like for students in the environment of distance, in person, or hybrid learning and how a special education student is supported to access what all students are receiving.

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). 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.

How related services are delivered during the COVID-19 pandemic requires an IEP team to consider medical concerns within the family and community and options for in-person, in-home and/or online delivery (telehealth). If related services are included in the IEP, then the school district is responsible to provide them unless an IEP team determines an alternative way to enable access to FAPE.

Here are a few examples of related services during the pandemic:

  • A medically fragile student requires nursing support while accessing virtual classes with peers (synchronous learning) or while working through a curriculum packet (asynchronous learning). A nurse at home becomes part of the family’s “COVID cohort” to meet health and safety guidelines.
  • A student with behavioral health needs struggles to access distance learning (school refusal), and parents lack skills to support behavior during learning time. The IEP is amended to include parent training for positive behavioral interventions and supports as a related service.
  • A student with receptive and expressive language deficits needs ongoing speech therapy to continue making meaningful progress on IEP goals and within the general education curriculum. Speech services are provided through telehealth.

A student in homeschool can receive Related Services from district

Note that a student enrolled in a homeschool can dually enroll in the local district to receive Related Services. A district is responsible under the IDEA’s Child Find Mandate to seek out and evaluate children who have known or suspected disabilities that may significantly impact access to learning, regardless of whether they are enrolled in public school. Here are resources for more information about homeschool process and requirements:

Questions to consider

Here are a few questions IEP teams might consider when discussing LRE, inclusion, placement, and Related Services during COVID-19:

  • What does general education look like for same-age peers in the environment of distance, in person, or hybrid learning?
  • How is a special education student supported to access what all students are receiving?
  • Is an IEP team meeting needed to discuss the student’s placement? (See PAVE’s article: Sample Letter to Request an IEP Meeting)
  • If a student will not return to the school building even if the district opens for some in-person instruction, then does the IEP team need to discuss how to provide access to general education (LRE) and IEP services from a homebound placement?
  • Does service delivery make room for a flexible schedule? Guidance from the state’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) provides for adaptability in how attendance is tracked and how a student can demonstrate participation. Likewise, Related Services may need to adapt to fit a schedule that works for a family with multiple considerations.
  • If delivery of an IEP service is not possible within health and safety guidelines, what else can the school district propose to provide access to learning/FAPE/LRE?