The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was enacted by the federal government to ensure that all children with disabilities are provided with “equality of [educational] opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency.”
Originally adopted in 1975 and amended in 2004, the IDEA aims to curb educational problems associated with low expectations and insufficient focus on alternative research, teaching methods, and tools. Following are the six major principles of the IDEA, focusing on students’ rights and the responsibilities of public schools to children with disabilities.
1. Free Appropriate Public Education
Under the IDEA, every child with a disability is entitled to a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). The IDEA emphasizes special education and related services, which should be designed to meet a child’s “unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living.”
Furthermore, courts have held that the IDEA requires schools to prepare Individualized Education Plans, which confer “meaningful educational benefit” to children with disabilities. The “meaningful educational benefit” requirement includes a focus on raised student expectations, appropriate progress, and transition into postsecondary education and independent living.
Public schools and local school boards are responsible for ensuring that every child with a disability receives a FAPE.
2. Appropriate Evaluation
The IDEA requires that schools conduct “appropriate evaluations”of students who are suspected of having a disability. An appropriate evaluation must be implemented by a team of knowledgeable and trained evaluators, must utilize sound evaluation materials and procedures, and must be administered on a non-discriminatory basis.
Children should not be subjected to unnecessary assessments or testing, and evaluations must be geared toward planning for the child’s education and future instruction. Finally, an appropriate evaluation must determine and make recommendations regarding a child’s eligibility for special education services in a timely manner.
3. Individualized Education Plan
The Individualized Education Plan (IEP) was established by the IDEA to help ensure every child’s access to a Free Appropriate Public Education. The IEP is a written document, developed by an IEP team, which draws upon existing evaluation information in order to meet a student’s unique educational needs.
Under the IDEA, an IEP must include information regarding a student’s present levels of educational performance, annual goals and benchmarking objectives, services and supplementary aids to be received, and a detailed explanation of instances where a student is not participating in the general classroom and why.
An IEP is also required to include information regarding consistent reporting on student progress as well as “transition” to adult life. Finally, it is required that an IEP account for the planning concerns of the parents and child, the strengths of a particular child, and the specific “academic, developmental, and functional needs” of the child.
4. Least Restrictive Environment
The IDEA places a strong emphasis on placement in a general education setting. Under the IDEA, a student is guaranteed placement in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) possible. Therefore, an IEP team must explore a number of alternatives for enabling a student to participate in the general education classroom. These may include: classroom modifications, supplemental aids and services, alternative instructional methods, etc.
If an IEP team determines that a student cannot be satisfactorily educated in a general education setting, then the team must make responsible efforts to determine the LRE for that student outside of the general classroom.
5. Parent Participation
The IDEA has a special provision for “parent participation in placement decisions.” Under this provision, state educational agencies and local school boards must ensure that the parents of a child with a disability are members of any group that makes decisions regarding the placement and LRE of that child.
Parents have the right to equal participation in this process, and are entitled to notification of a planned evaluation, access to planning and evaluation materials, and involvement in all meetings regarding their child’s placement. Additionally, parents retain the right to refuse further evaluation of their child. Both students and parents must be invited to IEP meetings, and the IDEA explicitly establishes a role for the parent as equal participant and decision maker.
6. Procedural Safeguards
Finally, the IDEA establishes procedural safeguards to help parents and students enforce their rights under federal law. The primary purpose of this requirement is twofold: safeguards protect parental access to information pertaining to placement and transition planning; and procedures are put in place to resolve disagreements between parents and schools regarding the placement of a student.
Under the IDEA procedural safeguards, parents have a right to review all educational records pertaining to their child, receive notice prior to meetings about their child’s evaluation, placement, or identification, and to obtain an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) for consideration at such meetings.
If disagreements arise, parents have the right to request mediation or due process hearings with state-level education agencies, and beyond that may appeal the decision in state or federal court.
Matthew Saleh is a Research Fellow at Cornell University’s Employment and Disability Institute and a Research Associate at the Campaign for Educational Equity at Teachers College, Columbia University. He received his J.D. from the Syracuse University College of Law and is currently a doctoral candidate at Columbia University.