A Look at Special Education Law in the United States

Special education services have evolved significantly since the first attempts at developing and codifying laws to ensure that all students were receiving an appropriate education. Children who have needs that require additional support or a different type of teaching approach are more likely to receive assistance. Often these needs can be provided within a regular classroom which allows the child to be a part of everyday school life with same-age peers. In the past thirty years, so much advancement has been made in the area of special education that it is exciting to contemplate what the next thirty years will bring.

Early Endeavors

In 1966, the Bureau for the Education of the Handicapped was formed to help provide some type of educational initiative for special needs children. This was a very limited attempt and it was not required that school districts comply. In 1970, yet another attempt to provide a differentiated education to children with additional needs was made with the passing of the Education of the Handicapped Act (EHA).

Two cases emerged between the years of 1971 and 1973 that were essential in opening up the path to a fair education for all children. In both of these cases, it was determined that children with special needs were guaranteed a right to a free and appropriate education, regardless of their disabilities, by the United States Constitution. It was the rulings of these two cases that led to the establishment of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCP).

When it was enacted in 1975, the EAHCP made it possible for the federal government to provide funding that established special needs programs within public schools. This was a major improvement over the previous attempts. More students were special needs were being identified, but there was still uncertainty as to the educational practices that would promote growth to allow these students to function as independently as possible.


The year 1990 saw a major change in how children with special educational needs were to be educated. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was born. With the passing of this act, children with special needs were given a much greater chance of realizing their full potential in the classroom.

Between the years 1975 and 1990, the education of special education teachers began to gain momentum. These teachers were trained to deal with students having a variety of disabilities. Until IDEA was enacted, many special education classrooms combined children with hearing and sight or mobility problems in the same classrooms as those who had learning difficulties. Children who were exhibiting behavioral or emotional problems were also put into these classrooms. Many children ended up lacking proper instruction because their individual needs were not being met.

Once IDEA came into being, special education laws added the requirement that a free and appropriate education had to be provided “in the least restrictive environment possible”. What this meant was that if there was any way possible to provide assistance that would enable a child with a documented disability to attend classes with the general population, then it had to be provided by the school district. This was excellent news for families of children with disabilities. Many were able to be integrated into the general population to the greatest extent possible with assistance such as sign language tutors, physical accommodations, curricular modifications, and other assistance.

Breaking It Down

IDEA can be broken down into key components. The idea behind the act was to make sure parents had the right to provide input into their child’s education and that each child receives a free and appropriate education. The concepts outlined in IDEA are as follows.

*Schools must notify parents if they feel a child needs additional help or can’t function properly within a regular classroom. The child can’t simply be moved into another type of educational setting without this notification being given to parents.

*Parents need to give their consent for any kind of evaluation that takes place. They have the right to know why the evaluation has been ordered, what it is to measure, and what the results show.

*The evaluation needs to be appropriate which includes individualization based on the student’s functioning and needs.

*Parents have the right to retain their own evaluator if they wish. While the school provides these evaluations, it is up to the parent whether they feel comfortable depending solely on the school’s evaluator or choosing their own to provide an additional evaluation to be considered by the team evaluating the child which typically consists of, at least: the parent, a regular education teacher, a special education teacher, a school administrator, a school psychologist, and any additional member that would have evaluative data such as an occupational therapist.

*Once evaluation is complete and the team (including parents) determines that the child meets eligibility as a student with a disability, the parent must agree to any specific placement before it is allowed. The child can’t be placed in classes unless the parent is in agreement.

*Every child who is deemed to meet eligibility to receive special education services is required to have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). This is a listing of what the child’s needs are and how those needs are going to be met.

*Either party has the right to ask for an appeal in front of an impartial third party.

*Either party has the right to ask for private action in the federal court system.

*If parents do go to court and are found to be correct, they have a right to have attorney fees paid by the school district.

*Students are re-evaluated for eligibility for special education services at least every three years.

*A functional behavioral assessment and behavior intervention plan must be enacted, and is recommended before, an individual with a disability is removed from school at least ten cumulative days due to behavior that interferes with the learning environment.

*A provision is included that states a child’s placement must remain as it is until such a time as the process has been completed. This means that if the school believes that the student is no longer eligible for special education services as a student with a disability, they must start back at the parental notification step and follow through the process before placing the child back into the general population or removing the special aids.


Special education laws and educational practices to help children with special educational needs continue to be evaluated in order to see how we can promote growth to the greatest extent possible.  Children and families have more educational rights than at any time and schools continue to improve their understanding of how best to educate all children.




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