What Is Special Education?


Public Schools Must Provide Special Support for Disabled Students

Since 1975, federal law has required public schools to make special efforts to educate disabled students. Revised and reauthorized as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 2004, federal special education law requires local educational agencies (LEAs) to provide “specially defined instruction, and related services, at no cost to parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability.” (Throughout this report, we use the term “special education” to refer to both special instruction and related services, such as speech or behavioral therapy.) These services are in addition to what a nondisabled student receives. The IDEA requires schools to provide these special supports to children with disabilities from age 3 until age 22, or until they graduate from high school, whichever happens first. (The IDEA also guarantees some early intervention services for infants and toddlers with developmental disabilities, but the state’s Regional Centers, not schools, typically are tasked with providing these services.)

Both Federal and State Laws Govern Special Education

Most special education requirements are contained in federal law, although the state Legislature also has passed some additional laws governing how California schools must serve disabled students. Generally, state special education laws make relatively minor additions to the more substantial federal requirements. For example, whereas the federal entitlement for services ends on a student’s 22nd birthday, California law extends services for 22-year-old students through the end of that school term.

Who Receives Special Education Services?

Not all disabled children need special education services. Below, we discuss the process for identifying which students require special education services and the types of disabilities that commonly affect these students.

Special Education Parent Support & Advice

Family Resource Center at AbilityPath (San Mateo County)
Supports parents by providing one-on-one consultations, training, and informative material on special education services including parents’ rights.

Parents Helping Parents (Santa Clara County)
Supports parents by providing one-on-one consultations, training, and informative material on special education services including parents’ rights.

Support for Families (San Francisco County)
Provides parent support, information and parent workshops on special education services.

How Do Schools Decide Which Students Require Special Education Services?

Schools First Must Try to Meet Students’ Needs Within the General Education Program

A student cannot qualify to receive special education services until after the school has tried to meet his or her needs within the parameters of the general education program. Educators typically attempt a series of informal strategies to address struggling students’ needs before employing the formal special education process. Two such approaches include Student Study Teams (SSTs) and Response to Intervention (RtI). The SST—a group that usually includes the student’s school–site administrator, teacher, and parent—typically discusses the student’s progress and identifies in–class strategies for the classroom teacher to try. The RtI is an instructional approach designed to identify struggling students and provide interventions explicitly targeted to meet their needs.

Schools Evaluate Whether Student Has Disability That Requires Special Education Services

If LEAs determine that general education programs cannot adequately meet a student’s needs, they next refer the student for a professional evaluation to see if he or she qualifies to receive special education. Once the LEA makes the referral and the parent consents, the law requires that the evaluation be conducted within 60 days. The evaluator assesses whether the student has a disability and whether that disability interferes with the student’s education. Federal law only requires schools to provide special education services to students who meet both of these criteria.

Students’ IEPs Define Their Special Education Services. Once an evaluator recommends that special education services would be appropriate, a team of stakeholders come together to prepare an IEP—an individualized written statement defining the services the LEA will provide for the student. Federal and state laws outline the IEP process, including setting timelines for completing and reviewing the plan (at least annually, but more frequently if a student’s needs change); specifying what the plan should include (described in Figure 1); and designating required IEP team participants. An IEP team typically includes the student’s parents, a school administrator, a special education teacher or service provider, the student’s general education teacher, the evaluator who determined the student’s eligibility for services, and—when appropriate—the student. The IEP becomes a legal document requiring the LEA to provide the services described for the SWD. (Throughout the remainder of this report, we use the term SWD to refer to disabled students who have formally qualified to receive special education services.

Required Components of Individualized Education Programs

  • Current Status. The child’s present level of academic achievement and functional performance.

  • Goals. Measurable annual goals for the child’s academic and functional performance.

  • Progress Measures. How progress towards meeting annual goals will be measured.

  • Services to Be Provided. Special education and related services to be provided, such as supplementary services and/or program modifications for the child. Details must include the projected beginning date, frequency, location, and duration of the services to be provided.

  • Inclusion in Mainstream Setting. The extent to which the child will/will not participate with nondisabled children in the regular class.

  • Assessment Plan. Accommodations necessary for child to participate in state and district assessments or alternate assessments necessary to measure the child’s academic achievement and functional performance.

  • Additional Considerations. As appropriate: employment or career goals, alternative course of study for grade promotion and high school graduation, plan for transitioning to general education or postsecondary activities, specialized equipment or transportation needs, goals for learning English, and/or extended school–year services.

Section 504 Plans

Section 504 Plans Describe Non-instructional Accommodations. Some students who need other special accommodations to fully participate in school activities may have a Section 504 Plan in addition to, or instead of, an IEP. Section 504 Plans, which also are federal entitlements for eligible students, typically cover non-instructional modifications like wheelchair ramps, blood sugar monitoring, or tape recorders for taking notes.

Private Schools

Students attending private schools also are entitled to special education services.Students with disabilities attending private schools also have the right to access publicly funded special education services. Those services, however, frequently are provided in the public school setting and may be less extensive than what would be available if the student opted to enroll in public school full time.