Special Education is specially designed instruction intended to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability, provided at no cost to the parents. This description is often referred to as FAPE, which stands for "Free Appropriate Public Education."
Another important acronym is LRE, which stands for "Least Restrictive Environment." To understand LRE, you need to understand that there is a continuum of placements. At one end of the spectrum, and truly the absolute least restrictive environment, is placement in a regular education classroom with no accommodations or services. Slightly more restrictive than that would be a placement in a regular education classroom, but perhaps with an aide in the classroom. Slightly more restrictive than that would be to pull the child out of the regular education classroom for special services for part of the day. More restrictive than that is a fully segregated setting. Even more restrictive is a private placement.
IEP's - Eligibility
IEP stands for Individualized Education Program. This is the cornerstone of a student's special education program. It is basically the contract between the school and the student which defines the accommodations and services that will be provided to the student. The group of people who decide on special education matters for your child is called the IEP Team.
The Team - which includes the parents - will conduct a two-part inquiry to determine a child's eligibility for special education. First, the Team will determine whether there is indeed a disability. No matter how poorly a student is doing, if there is no disability, then there will not be an IEP. Once it is determined that a student has a disability, the Team will then determine if the student's lack of progress is due to that disability. That connection is vital. If there is a disability, and there is also poor progress, you will need to show that the poor progress is related to the disability. No relationship means no IEP.
IEP's - Evaluations
Eligibility for an IEP will be based in large part on the results of a special education evaluation. If you believe your child has a disability which is affecting their progress in school, you should request that the school district conduct an evaluation of your child. You should not have to pay for the school's evaluation. The first evaluation is called an "Initial Evaluation." If your child is found eligible for an IEP, the school district is then required to reevaluate him or her every 3 years (or sooner).
If you disagree with some aspect of the testing that the school district conducted, you have the right to request an Independent Educational Evaluation (IEE) at school district expense. Getting an IEE at school district expense is often a point of contention between schools and parents. If there is a disagreement, you should consult with an attorney. Parents also have the right to request an IEE at their own expense at any time. An IEE is vital in a due process hearing.
IEP's - Placement
Placement is often a point of disagreement between parents and schools. As mentioned earlier, schools are required to educate children in the the least restrictive environment. Parents often want to place their child in a private school, which is considered more restrictive than a public school. If there is a dispute about placement, and the dispute goes to a due process hearing, parents will need to satisfy a 2-pronged legal standard.
First, parents will need to prove that the school's proposed placement is inappropriate, which basically means that it will not allow for meaningful educational progress. If parents cannot prove this, then no matter how good the parent's proposed placement is, the parents are unlikely to win. Schools are only required to provide a meaningful education benefit, not a maximized benefit. If it can be shown that the school's placement is inappropriate, parents will then need to show that their proposed placement would allow for a meaningful benefit.
IEP's - Dispute
If you have a dispute with some aspect of your child's special education, you should first talk with the rest of the Team. Try not to yell or become angry - it will not accomplish anything, and will only escalate problems. If you cannot reach resolution by dealing directly with the Team, you should then consult with a lawyer. Oftentimes, the involvement of lawyers can diffuse a difficult situation.
If you still cannot reach resolution, you usually have two due process options. The first is mediation, and the second is a hearing. Mediation is a voluntary process - it will only occur if both sides agree to it. If an agreement is reached in mediation, it will be binding. The second option is a hearing. This is the equivalent of a trial. It will be conducted in front of a hearing officer, with witnesses and evidence being presented. You should consult with a lawyer if you are considering mediation or a hearing. Appeals can then be made to the federal or state court system.