The law is clear: Every child in this country who has a disability — no matter the nature of the disability — has the right to a public education at no cost to their families. Schools must try to meet the individual needs of each child with disabilities by providing special education and related services.
The federal law that gives children with disabilities from birth to age 21 the right to a free and appropriate education is called the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Free means at no cost to the families. Appropriate means that the educational services must be individually designed to meet each child’s unique needs.
The unique and individually designed education plan that is written for a child with a disability is called an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). For children younger than age 3, the plan is called an Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). These plans are developed by the team of professionals working with the child in partnership with the child’s family.
If needed, children with disabilities can receive related services at no cost to their family. Related services are the supports, services, therapies or interventions that may be given to help children learn. Related services are written into a child’s IEP or IFSP.
The law also says that a child with disabilities must be educated in the least restrictive environment (LRE). This means that the child should be in classes with non-disabled children and go to schools in his neighborhood. The law also says that, whenever possible, children with disabilities should be in the same general education classes they would have attended if they had not been classified as having a disability.
The law continues to recognize the valuable role that parents play in their child’s education. In the latest update of the law, the term parent is expanded to include an adoptive or foster parent, guardian, or individual legally responsible for the child. In addition, the revised law provides more opportunities for early and simple ways to resolve disagreements between home and school. The legislation clearly supports the idea that parents or other adults legally responsible for the child have to be kept informed and have meaningful opportunities to be involved in their child’s educational process.