A Look at Special Education Law in the United States

Today, special education is nothing like it was in the past. Children who have needs that require added support or a different type of teaching are able to find it. Often these needs can be provided for within a regular classroom, allowing the child to be a part of everyday school life. In the past thirty years, so much advancement has been made in the area of special education that it is exciting to contemplate what the next thirty will bring.

Early Endeavors

In 1966, the Bureau for Education of the Handicapped was formed to help provide some type of educational initiative for special needs children. This was a very limited attempt and it was not required that school districts comply. In 1970, yet another attempt to provide an educated to these children was made with the passing of the Education of the Handicapped Act.

Two cases emerged between the years of 1971 and 1973 that were essential in opening up the path to a fair education for all children. In both of these cases, it was determined that special needs children were guaranteed a right to a free and appropriate education, regardless of their disabilities, by the United States Constitution. It was the rulings of these two cases that led to the establishment of the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCP).

When it was enacted in 1975, the EAHCP made it possible for the federal government to provide funding that established special needs programs within public schools. This was a major improvement over the previous attempts. More students were finding their way into the educational system, but their needs were still not being met in a way that would give them an education they could use in the “real” world.


The year 1990 saw a major change in how children with disabilities were to be educated. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was born. With the passing of this act, children with special needs were given a much greater chance of realizing their full potential in the classroom.


Between the years 1975 and 1990, the education of Special Education teachers began to gain momentum. These teachers were trained to deal with a variety of disabilities. Until IDEA was enacted, many special education classrooms combined children with hearing and sight or mobility problems in the same classrooms as those who had learning difficulties. Children who were exhibiting behavioral or emotional problems were also put into these classrooms. Many children ended up lacking proper instruction because their individual needs were being met.

Once IDEA came into being, special education laws added the requirement that an appropriate education had to be provided “in the least restrictive environment possible”. What this meant was that if there was any way possible to provide aids that would enable a special needs child to attend classes with the general population, then it had to be provided by the school district. This was excellent news for children with disabilities. Many were able to be integrated into the general population to the greatest extent possible with aids such as sign language tutors, physical accommodations, curricular modifications, and other assistance.

Breaking It Down

IDEA can be broken down into ten basic concepts. The idea behind the act was to make sure parents had the right to input where their child’s education is concerned and that no child is subject to being refused as high quality education as possible. The concepts outlined in IDEA are as follows.

*Schools must notify parents if they feel a child needs additional help or can’t function properly within a regular classroom. The child can’t simply be moved into another type of educational setting without this notification being given to parents.

*Parents need to give their consent for any kind of evaluation that takes place. They have the right to know why the evaluation has been ordered, what it is to measure and what the results show.

*The evaluation needs to be appropriate which includes individualization based on the student’s functioning and needs.

*Parents have the right to retain their own evaluator if they wish. While the school provides these evaluations, it is up to the parent whether they feel comfortable depending on the school’s evaluator or choosing their own.

*Once evaluation is complete, the parent must agree to any placement before it is allowed. The child can’t be placed in LS or ES classes unless the parent is in agreement.

*Every child who is deemed special needs is required to have an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). This is a listing of what the child’s needs are and how those needs are going to be met.

*Either party has the right to ask for an appeal in front of an impartial third party.

*Either party has the right to ask for private action in the federal court system.

*If parents do go to court and are found to be correct, they have a right to have attorney fees paid by the school district.

*A provision is included that states a child’s placement must remain as it is until such a time as the process has been gone through again. This means that if the school decides special needs are no longer in existence, they must start back at the parental notification step and follow through the process before placing the child back into the general population or removing the special aids.


Special education has come a long way, but there is still room for much improvement. If things continue at the current pace, however, we will one day see all children receiving the education they most need.


http://futureofchildren.org/futureofchildren/publications/docs/06_01_01.pdf https://www2.ed.gov/policy/speced/leg/idea/history.html https://www.naesp.org/resources/1/Principal/2008/N-Oweb2.pdf


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