A Grossly Simplified Explanation of Federal Laws on Special Education in the United States

I struggle to understand how special education functions at a systematic level in the US. It’s complicated and tricky and every single rule has been put in place for a reason.

Special Ed in the US largely functions around these laws and educators and professionals are held to tight regulations of compliance. This is not necessarily so in other countries.

So to understand my points of view on any issues in NZ special education, you should understand some basics of our own special education system.

Prior to 1975, the US had a dark past of educating individuals with disabilities, in that we didn’t. Many children with disabilities were put into state hospitals or sidelined into basement classrooms to play with blocks and stuff. Geraldo Rivera did an alarming piece on this issue in 1972 about the Willowbrook State School for individuals with intellectual disabilities. It showed the institution’s horrendous and overpopulated living conditions. You can see a clip of it here. I really encourage you to watch it. It’s only 2 minutes.

Riding the educational civil rights wave headed by Brown v. Board of Education Topeka (albeit 20 years later), the US Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) in 1975, which made special education programs mandatory in public educational agencies within the country. This act turned into the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990 (and most recently revised in 2004) which states that students with disabilities are entitled to a Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE) that prepares them for further education, employment, and independent living.

IDEA addresses nearly all aspects of special education and other issues regarding students with disabilities (such as eligibility for services, Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), related services, early interventions, procedural safeguards, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and anything else you can possibly think of). It’s basically the bible of special education in the US.

So, what is FAPE? A free and appropriate education means that schools are responsible for paying for and providing any related services that allow a student to be appropriately educated (meaning they have access to curriculum that their disability would otherwise prevent). This can be in the form of medical services for a physical handicap, speech services for a speech and language disability, or Visual Impairment Specialists for students who are blind or have significant visual impairments. These should be of no cost to the family and the school cannot deny service to a student who requires these related services based on cost. Where does the money come from? I’m not entirely sure. Much of the money comes from federal funding for special education programs, however, some schools are left to supplement that funding from other areas of their budget.

Also, FAPE must be provided in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) possible. This means that special education students should be in the most mainstream setting (with non-disabled students) that they can successfully participate in (also known as inclusive education). They should only be in secluded classrooms or schools if their participation in mainstream settings has proven unsuccessful with every mode of support possible. The placement of some special education students can be points of contention between the school and the parents. Schools and parents can disagree on the placement of some students, one wanting a less restrictive placement and the other wanting a more restrictive placement – both sides motivated by what they think is the most successful setting for the student.

These are all federal regulations that guide our special education programs. I know it’s not bedtime reading (and only the tip of the iceberg of the educational alphabet soup) but it will provide you with some background knowledge if you choose to read my posts on special education here in New Zealand.

And just for funsies, here are the 13 categories of disabilities recognized in Minnesota:

  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
  • Blind/Visually Impaired (B/VI)
  • Deaf/Blind (DB)
  • Deaf and Hard of Hearing (D/HH)
  • Developmental Cognitive Disability (DCD)
  • Developmental Delay (DD)
  • Emotional/Behavioral Disorder (E/BD)
  • Other Health Disability (OHD) *ADHD/ADD fall under this category
  • Physical Disability (PD)
  • Severely Multiply Impaired (SMI)
  • Specific Learning Disability (SLD)
  • Speech/Language Impairment (SLI)
  • Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI)

In the 2010-2011 school year, there were 111, 794 students aged 6-21 with disabilities in Minnesota, which was 13.5% of the student population. The highest incidence categories were Specific Learning Disorders, Emotional/Behavioral Disorders, Other Health Disorders, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and Developmental and Cognitive Delays. You can read more in the 2010-2011 Minnesota Annual Report on Special Education Performance here.

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