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A Bright IDEA: Special Education Laws and Regulations

Education in general can seem like alphabet soup at times… we have the DRA, EDM, IEPs, NCLB, APs, SBSTs, and many other acronyms, some of which are interpreted differently depending on who you talk to.  For Special Education teachers, the IDEA law, or Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, provides a whole new ingredient to the alphabet soup.  The Act, which was reauthorized by President Bush in 2004, is one of the key laws governing the rights of special education students and their parents as well as the responsibilities that the state, schools, and individual teachers have toward these students and their families.  Let’s explore the basic features of this law and how it affects your classroom.

The IDEA was first authorized as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) in 1975 as Public Law 94-1942.  It was amended in 1990 to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.  To me, it seems like the main purpose of IDEA is to help students with disabilities to be successful in the school system, regardless of what it takes to achieve that success.  Officially, when first enacted and continuing to the present, the IDEA has had four main purposes:

  • To ensure a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) for all children, with access to special education and related services as necessary to ensure the appropriateness of a child’s education
  • To make sure that the rights of children with disabilities and their parents are protected, in the school system and in general
  • To help the individual states provide special education services as necessary
  • To track and monitor the effectiveness of special education services

The IDEA has been amended several times since its inception as the EHA in 1975.  It has since come to encompass specific standards for early assessment and intervention for students with disabilities from birth to age 2, including federal and state-mandated assistance for parents.  In addition to early childhood standards, IDEA now provides guidelines for transition plans for older students with disabilities, stating that transition planning must begin at age 14.  It is divided into three main sections: Part A governs overall organization and tenets of the law, Part B addresses students aged 3-21, and Part C encompasses Early Intervention for children from birth to age 2.

Here are some of the key aspects of IDEA law that may affect you in your classroom:

  • According to IDEA, each child has the right to be educated in the Least Restrictive Environment possible.  This means that where possible, students with disabilities should be educated in their neighborhood schools.  These students are either in self-contained settings or in general education classes with resource room or related services or, more increasingly, in inclusion classes in which special and general education students are mixed.  This means that you may have a student in your general education classroom who receives special services.
  • IDEA provides for Highly Qualified Teachers, meaning that special educators must meet certain requirements and pass certification standards that may differ from general education teachers in their age-based license area.  In some states, Students with Disabilities or Special Education Teacher is an extension license for an age-based license; in some states, special education teachers pursue an entirely different certification track.
  • IDEA’s re-authorization in 2004 provided for the creation within the Federal Department of Education an Office of Special Education Programs, which is now the overseeing department for special education services in the school system.
  • IDEA provides rigorous standards for the determination of a student’s eligibility for services using “scientific research-based documentation and observation,” ensuring that students cannot be classified arbitrarily.  If you have ever tried to refer a student for an evaluation for eligibility to receive special services, you know how detailed and involved the process can be!
  • IDEA provides strict guidelines for the creation, maintenance, and evaluation of a student’s Individual Education Program, or IEP.  This means that teachers and schools have an increased burden of accountability to the state, which in turn reports to the national authorities on special education.  This may affect you in terms of ensuring that special education students receive the interventions they need as well as frequent assessments to determine the efficacy of these interventions.
  • IDEA has specific provisions for how the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA (also known as the Buckley Amendment) affects students with disabilities.  This may affect your access to IEPs or, for special education teachers, explain how you need to handle IEPs in terms of restricting access and keeping records as to who has viewed the documents.
  • IDEA provides for and sets forth guidelines for student assessment and evaluation that transcend and take into account cultural factors, including norming of culturally specific test items on standardized tests.
  • IDEA addresses students who have been placed into alternative settings for behavioral reasons, stating that functional behavioral analysis (FBA) must be performed before moving a student due to behavior, that students in this situation must continue to receive the same educational services as they received in the classroom even in their alternate setting, and that FBAs must be performed at regular intervals to ensure that students continue to require the more restrictive environment.

When I first started as a special education teacher, I was overwhelmed by the breadth and scope of IDEA.  However, you’ll quickly become familiar with the aspects of the law that apply to you and your students.  There are also lots of places to get more information about anything that seems confusing.  Here are some resources you can check out to explore IDEA further.


The IDEA homepage

Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services

Office of Special Education Programs
Toolkit for assessment of students with disabilities, as well as information about behavior, instructional practices, accommodations for students with disabilities, and much more… this is a great website!

Wrightslaw is a huge resource for special education laws and commentary, as well as searchable topic-specific information on assessments, parent’s rights, transition requirements, etc.


Chapman, Randy. The Everyday Guide to Special Education Law - A Handbook for Parents, Teachers and Other Professionals, Second Edition
This plain-English book is the quick-and-dirty reference of choice for getting easy-to-understand and comprehensible information about IDEA and related laws

Mandlawitz, Myrna. What Every Teacher Should Know About IDEA 2004 Laws and Regulations
Another great, easy-to-understand resource specifically aimed at teachers

Dowdy, Carol; Polloway, Edward; and Patton, James. Teaching Students With Special Needs In Inclusive Settings, 5th Edition
I used this book in one of my graduate school classes and found it to be particularly helpful when considering how to address specific student needs according to IDEA, it also has a great overview on the law itself

IDEA is a confusing part of the special education alphabet soup, but the basics are all you really need to ‘make a meal out of it,’ along with a nice side of the Americans with Disabilities Act and Section 504 laws, which I will discuss in future posts.  If you have any questions about these or about IDEA itself, feel free to post them as comments and I will try to answer them as quickly as possible!


Comments are closed. Please see Classroom Solutions, our new blog for the 2009-2010 school year. And stay tuned for Teaching Matters with Angela Bunyi and Beth Newingham.

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