Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

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Section 504
ESE - Subjects

This section of the website presents information on the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  It is organized by the order of subjects as covered by the statute.  An attempt has been made to link the article to the relevant regulations, and to the Special Education Subject as presented in ESE-Subjects.

IDEA - Individuals with Disabilities Education Act – 20 U.S.C. § 1400 et seq.; 34 C.F.R. § 300.  

The IDEA is the principal law relied upon by advocates to obtain appropriate education for children with disabilities.  In simple terms IDEA requires public school districts to seek out and identify children with disabilities and provide them with an appropriate education in an educational environment, which is as close to the regular education environment as possible.  This law requires that schools develop an annual educational plan (IEP) through an multidisciplinary team, which includes the parents.  Educational advocates function primarily in the complex processes involved in the development and implementation of these educational plans.

A.  History – Until 1975, when the Education of all Handicapped Children Act (EHCA) or Public Law 94-14 was passed, children with disabilities had no federally protected right to an appropriate public school education.  Up to that time, many severely disabled children were excluded from public school or were provided only minimal education in segregated, often dismal programs.  

The original EHCA was followed by successive amendments in 1983 and 1986.  Then in 1990 the law was revamped and renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).  The IDEA has been reauthorized and amended in 1992, 1997 and most recently in November 2004.

Because the IDEA and other related educational laws are continually changing and evolving, it is very important that advocates make every effort to update their knowledge of the statutes and their interpretation by the courts.

B.  Legal Concepts – IDEA:  It is often easiest for advocates to develop their understanding of special education law through a study of the basic legal principles, which have evolved from the statutes and the case law.  Once the advocate has a grasp of these principles, it becomes easier to apply the law to the complexities of the educational process.  Some of the basic principles are briefly discussed below.
Why prefer an IEP over a 504 Plan?

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Special Education is a service - not a place

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What it means for a child to "require" special education services

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1.  Special Education:  While most people understand that a child with an IEP (Individual Education Plan) is receiving “special education,” there is a lot of confusion about what we mean by this term.  Essentially, special education is considered “specially designed instruction,” which is provided to a student with disabilities in order to assist the student successfully access education.  20 U.S.C. §1401 – Definitions (25).  34 C.F.R. § 300.26 (3)

Special Education usually involves the adaptation or modification of content and/or the variation in the rate or method of delivery of instruction.  Special education can also involve the teaching of skills, designed to assist the student in compensating for or overcoming this effects of the student’s particular disability.

2.  IDEA Eligibility:  Before a student can receive special education services, it is necessary that the student be found legally eligible for such services.  In a global sense, IDEA eligibility requires that the student be a “child with a disability” and by reason thereof “needs” special education and related services.  20 U.S.C. § 1401 (3)  

Each category of disability has its own legal criteria for determining the disability and eligibility.  The simple existence of a disability will not in and of itself make the child eligible for IDEA services.  The law also requires that the established disability have an adverse affect on the child’s educational performance. (See Practice Note)

Disability categories: The statutes and rules related to each disability category under IDEA are discussed under the heading for that disability (See the tab "Disabilities" in the left-hand column).   It is important that the advocate have a good understanding of the various legally recognized disability categories. These are identified in C.F.R. 300.7 (See list below).  The specific eligibility criteria of each category can be somewhat complex and are usually grounded in psychological, communicational, or physical assessments. The advocate should at least be able to locate the precise legal criteria for each disability category and should be capable of understanding the assessment procedures used to determine eligibility.  A few of these primary categories are:  

Mental Handicap      

Specific Learning Disabilities  


Other Health Impairment     

Emotional Disturbance    

3.  Free and Appropriate Public Education. 20 U.S.C. § 1401 (8);
The obligation of school districts to educate children with disabilities is summarized in the requirement for schools to provide a “free and appropriate public education.”  This is a power packed phrase and is the core principle governing every issue related to the education of those with disabilities.

The requirement of a “free” education means that the school may not require any payment for the provision of education.  If assistive technology, special books, transportation, etc. are required in order for the child to receive an appropriate education, then they need to be provided without charge.

The definition of the word “appropriate” as it related to the education of those with disabilities could fill volumes.  Almost every due process administrative hearing or court case will turn around whether or not the school district has offered an “appropriate” education.  The IEP is the vehicle or plan for delivering this “appropriate” education and appropriateness will be decided through the subjective finding as to whether the IEP is “reasonably calculated to confer educational benefit.”

4.  Least Restrictive Environment:  The principle of education in the least restrictive environment harkens back to the origins of special education law.  Prior to 1975 many children with disabilities were not offered any public education.  Those who were provided some education were generally segregated into separate institutions, schools or classes.  In this sense the § 504 and IDEA are truly anti-discrimination laws.  

In simple terms these laws require that children be educated in an environment as close to the regular education environment as possible.  These laws raised a rebuttable presumption that disabled children should be educated with their non-disabled peers.  Only when all reasonable efforts, including accommodations, modifications, and supports, have been unsuccessful in providing an appropriate education in the regular placement, may the school begin to restrict the students educational environment.  

In determining whether a student is capable of receiving an appropriate education in a regular education or other inclusion class it is not necessary that the student be successful in the same way as the typically developing peers.  It is only necessary that the student be able to make educational progress according to the student’s own abilities and nature.  It has been held that social benefit may be sufficient grounds for approving mainstream education for a child with a disability (See also IEP-Placement)

”To the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, including children in public or private institutions or other care facilities, are educated with children who are not disabled, and special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the disability of a child is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactory.” 20 U.S.C. § 1412 A (5); 34 C.F.R. § 300.130; 34 C.F.R. 300.550 through 556.

5. Stay Put: Congress recognized that at some point in a child’s education a dispute might arise between the student’s parents and the school district as to the appropriate educational plan for the child.  In an effort to maintain a certain equilibrium between the parties during the resolution of the dispute, the law has established the principle of “stay put.”  This means in simple terms that the student shall remain in the current educational placement “during the pendency” of due process administrative hearing or Court trial.  The child can be moved to another placement during the pendency of the resolution only by mutual agreement of the parties.

“… during the pendency of any proceedings conducted pursuant to this section, unless the State or local educational agency and the parents otherwise agree, the child shall remain in the then-current educational placement of such child, …” 20 U.S.C. § 1415 (j)  

Important Case Update:  Endrew F. v. Douglas County.