Special Education and the Laws That Affect It
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In this chapter we discuss the main laws affecting special education and how they apply to you as a general education teacher. The omnibus Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Family and Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) provide important guidelines and, although the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) focuses on all students, it also has certain implications for students with disabilities.
To provide context, we explain what special education is—its characteristics, who receives it, its purpose and goal, why access to the general education classroom and curriculum is important, and who the various professionals are who work with students with disabilities. We also cover the rights and roles of parents of students with disabilities, again pointing out information that is important for you to know. (Keep in mind that some students with disabilities do not require special education services but may be affected by Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973; basically, Section 504 is an anti-discrimination statute. For more about Section 504, see Chapter 5
Public Law 94-142
The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (PL 94-142), which is frequently referred to as PL 94-142, provides guidance to states, allowing students with disabilities to access public education and providing financial assistance to states as supplemental funding for special education and related services. Passed in 1975, PL 94-142 mandated that in order to receive federal funding for special education, states had to comply with the law (Yell, 2015).
The outcome of PL 94-142, now referred to as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, or IDEA (PL 108-446), is special education as we know it. Most recently reauthorized in 2004, it is the main law regarding educational services for students with disabilities, and its specific components are important to their education. Before 1975, only a few small districts provided education for students with disabilities in the United States. At that time it was legal to prevent students with disabilities from receiving an education. PL 94-142 changed everything for students with disabilities, and public education became education for all.
Eight Core Principles of Special Education
Special education law as it currently stands embodies eight core principles:
- Child find/zero reject
- Nondiscriminatory evaluation
- Individualized education program (IEP)
- Free appropriate public education (FAPE)
- Least restrictive environment (LRE)
- Related services
- Parent participation
Understanding these principles can help you understand how special education is meant to be provided for students with disabilities; they can guide you as you work to ensure that students make progress in the general curriculum.
Child find/zero reject
School districts are required by law to seek out and identify every eligible student with a disability living within their jurisdiction. Once identified, with parental permission, all students identified as having disability and requiring special education are to receive an education based on their individual needs. It is important to understand that this principle extends to students who may have committed a serious offense. Such students are still eligible for services.
Before students with disabilities are eligible for special education services, they must receive a nondiscriminatory evaluation, which is usually conducted by the school district. The evaluations must conform to the following guidelines:
- Tests must be administered in the student's native language.
- Tests must be appropriate for the student's age and suspected disability.
- More than one test must be used in determining the disability and need for services.
- Knowledgeable and appropriately trained individuals must administer the tests.
- All areas of suspected disability must be assessed.
- All decisions about eligibility for special education and related services must be made by a team, not a single individual.
- To be eligible for special education and related services, students must meet specific criteria; school districts serve students' educational needs under specified disability categories.
Individualized education program (IEP)
All students eligible for special education and related services receive an individualized education program, or IEP. The IEP is one of the most important educational documents for a student with a disability, and it should be viewed as a contract between the district and the student's parents. The IEP lists the educational and intervention services to be provided for the student, specifying the types and amount of such services. The IEP serves many purposes: instruction, communication, management, accountability, monitoring, and evaluation.
Free appropriate public education (FAPE)
All students in the United States have the right to receive an education, but students who are eligible for special education and related services are entitled to receive a free appropriate public education, or FAPE, which may look very different than what the general education student receives. FAPE is the heart of special education, and it includes several elements. First, the educational services provided to the student (assessment, instruction, special transportation if needed, other specialized services) are all provided at no cost to the family. Second, the education must be appropriate in that it allows the student to make progress in the general curriculum and is tailored and planned according to the student's individual needs. It is important to note that an "appropriate" education does not require the best possible services, but must ensure adequate progress in the general curriculum. Third, FAPE means that the public education entity is responsible for educating students within its boundaries. Some students may have such severe disabilities that they need to attend a school outside of the district. When a district determines it is unable to provide a free appropriate public education for a student, it is still responsible for covering the cost for the student to receive that education in a different setting.
Least restrictive environment (LRE)
"Least restrictive environment" is not only a special education term, but also a legal principle—and one of the most important points for general education teachers to know about because it determines where a student with a disability is to receive education services. LRE requires that students with disabilities be educated with their chronologically aged peers to the greatest extent possible, and that typically means in the general education classroom.
Under LRE, students with disabilities who are in general education classrooms are provided with supports and services that meet their needs as much as possible. Students with disabilities are to participate fully, both academically and socially. In addition, the general education teacher is expected to differentiate the methods used to provide services so all students benefit from instruction. Students with disabilities are to be educated in the general education classroom until all available methods to meet their needs in this environment are tried and deemed unsuccessful. A more restrictive setting should be considered only if every available method has been tried in the general education classroom and the needs of a student are still not met. It is important to note that the meaning of "restrictive" is open to interpretation and depends on the specific circumstances. For example, a paraprofessional interacting with a student one-on-one all day in a general education classroom could result in a more restrictive situation than the student would experience in a separate setting for instruction, due to possible social repercussions.
In addition to special education services, a student may require related services. Section 300.24(a) of IDEA defines "related services" as those that "are required to assist a child with a disability to benefit from special education." They include but are not limited to the following components: transportation, speech pathology, audiology, physical therapy, occupational therapy, therapeutic recreation, social work, medical services, counseling, and recreational services.
You may have students in your classroom who have articulation difficulties, are uncoordinated, have poor handwriting, or face other challenges, but will not be able to receive related services even though they might benefit from them. To be eligible for related services, students must first qualify for special education under one of the qualifying categories. Related services cannot be provided as standalone services (with the exception of speech language services). Thus an IEP cannot contain only related services. The purpose of a related service is to help a student with a disability benefit from the special education program.
Before a student receives special education and related services, the parents or guardians must sign on. They are equal participants in the process and must give permission for the evaluation, participate in the development of the IEP, and agree to any changes in either the program or placement. As a check on the system, parents have the right to request a due-process hearing. Finally, parents may have access to the student's records, including evaluation reports, IEPs, and disciplinary reports. (We discuss parents' roles and responsibilities in greater detail later in this chapter.)
As a general education teacher, you will hear a lot of personal information about students, especially those with disabilities. Needless to say, confidentiality is very important. You should discuss information about a specific student only with others who need to know. For example, a 3rd grade teacher might talk with the special education teacher about problems in the classroom with a student who receives services from that teacher but should not discuss these problems with colleagues who are not part of the student's educational team. Additionally, there needs to be a log of all personnel who see a student's special education records.
The Broader Picture: What Is Special Education?
IDEA defines special education as "specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a student with a disability"(Sec. 300.39.a.l). But beyond the definition and the various components mandated by law, what exactly is special education? In a broad sense, special education encompasses the academic, physical, cognitive, and social-emotional instruction offered to students who have one or more disabilities. Due to a specific disability, some students' needs cannot be met within what might be called the "traditional" classroom environment. Special education programs and services adapt content and teaching methodology and deliver instruction to meet the needs of each student.
Special education has four main characteristics. First, it is individualized. For example, a student with a learning disability might need a smaller class size with individualized attention in reading; a student with a physical disability might need specialized equipment and possibly some technology modification; a student with an articulation disorder might need intensive instruction and modeling to improve her ability to communicate with others.
Second, students who receive special education services may receive modifications of teaching strategies or programs. Some students require extensive modifications due to the nature and severity of their disabilities, whereas others require only minimal changes.
Third, students who receive special education services are systematically monitored. Data support all phases of the special education process. Data are used to determine qualification for services and as the starting point for the development of the IEP, in terms of present levels of academic and functional performance, which includes all academic, behavioral, and social skills. Appropriate assessment at the start of the IEP process provides baseline data from which future progress can be measured. Progress toward goals can be measured by the student's performance in relation to individual short-term objectives or through other means, as determined by the IEP team. The IEP must also include a statement of how the student's progress toward goals and objectives will be measured. The data accumulated from these measurements are used to assess the student's progress.
Fourth, students who receive special education services also receive related services necessary to help ensure an appropriate education. As noted in the earlier discussion about the eight core principles of special education, these services are an important and beneficial component of many students' programs.
Who receives special education services?
Parents and other staff may come to you requesting an IEP for a student who has been diagnosed with a disability. However, it is important to understand that to be eligible for special education and have an IEP, a student must (1) meet the disability criteria outlined in federal and state law and (2) require individualized instruction (i.e., instruction that is not available to the general population of students). If these two criteria are not met, then a student does not qualify, even if that student has a disability.
Keep in mind that some students may be diagnosed with a disability and only require accommodations. Those students would not qualify for an IEP because requiring accommodations is not the same as requiring individualized instruction. However, they may qualify for a Section 504 plan (see Chapter 5
for more about Section 504 plans). Some parents and educators believe a diagnosis of a disability from a clinical psychologist or a physician automatically makes a student eligible for special education and related services. The student may have a disability but may not necessarily need specially designed instruction, and is therefore not eligible for special education. If a student receives a diagnosis of a disability from someone outside the school district, the district should consider this diagnosis and review the student's educational performance closely to determine if special education is necessary. The student may well be eligible, but that determination is made only after a comprehensive evaluation.
A comprehensive evaluation includes all of the existing data gathered about the student through the referral process and any additional assessments needed to determine eligibility for special education. As part of this information, the general education teacher provides an assessment of the student's progress in the general education classroom. Also, observa...