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Mastering Legislation: Exploring the Intricacies of Special Education Laws

Special education provides students with disabilities accommodation, services and support to enable them to participate in regular classrooms. It can help with learning difficulties, communication disorders, physical disabilities and emotional and behavioral needs.

States have significant flexibility in implementing federal special education laws and may offer additional protections. Many state handbooks or guides can help you find the information you need.


As with any field, laws and regulations are integral to special education. For instance, the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and its accompanying Code of Federal Regulations establish rigorous standards for evaluation, placement, and due process rights.

Kids who qualify for special education are given individualized teaching and resources at no cost to their families. Depending on their needs, they might spend most of the day in general classrooms with other kids or might need to go to a school that is specialized for children with disabilities.

A key part of individualized education is the ability to adapt teaching methods for a specific student. This is accomplished through accommodation, a type of modification that changes the presentation, response, setting or schedule of learning materials. These accommodations can help a student learn or participate more effectively in the learning process. Examples include providing a large-print textbook for a visually impaired student or allowing students to take written assessments in their preferred language.

Federal Guidelines

Several important legal guidelines are integral to special education. The first is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). It establishes educational requirements for children with disabilities ages 3 to 21, sets out procedural safeguards and provides a mechanism for resolving disagreements about students' rights.

IDEA also includes a provision that guarantees all eligible children receive a free appropriate public education, or FAPE. This requires that schools evaluate every child for disabilities, offer parents a chance to review the full evaluations and ensure that evaluations aren't racially or culturally biased.

IDEA is binding federal law, but the states can add more protections for children. For example, New York has its own set of laws in the Education Law and Commissioner Regulations. These cannot contradict or take away from the rights granted by IDEA but generally offer more protections than IDEA itself. Parents can access these laws through their state department of education. New York's OSE has Parent Training and Information Centers and regional technical assistance specialists in each of its 10 regions.

IDEA Compliance

In order for states to receive federal funding, they must have policies and procedures that comply with the requirements of IDEA. These regulations are often set by state law and also may be further clarified through Dear Colleague Letters, policy letters, or memos from the U.S. Department of Education.

The IDEA requires schools to conduct appropriate evaluations of children with disabilities who may be eligible for special education services. These evaluations must be conducted in a non-discriminatory manner, and the results should guide the development of an IEP or other decisions regarding the child’s educational needs. Additionally, parents must fully participate in decision-making pertaining to their child’s disability from the appropriate evaluation all the way through IEP and LRE decisions.

State-Specific Rules

As with any field, the laws that govern special education continue to evolve. Federal legislation such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which lays out the core principles, was most recently reauthorized in 2004. The US Department of Education then developed regulations to clarify and explain how to implement the law.

These regulations – and the laws they are meant to implement – are binding on all states, including local school districts. This is why state statutes and regulations are integral to special education. State laws may provide children with more, or fewer, protections than federal law.

As a parent, you will need to understand your state’s specific laws and regulations in order to ensure that your child is getting the best possible education. Many states offer handbooks and guides that will help you understand these laws. You can also contact your school district or the regional technical assistance centers for more information.