Special Education Law – Technical Jargon You Need to Understand

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As parents jump into the murky waters that is our special education system, they often get overwhelmed by the acronyms and technical jargon that form the backbone of IDEA provisions for their special needs child. One of the more confusing terms is FAPE, or Free and Appropriate Public Education.

At first glance, this acronym seems straightforward. However, ambiguity in word definitions has led to much frustration. The word “appropriate” in particular has not been very clearly defined. Consequently, what constitutes an “appropriate” education has been largely defined by the courts as they rule on individual cases.

As a rule, “appropriate” does not ever mean the most ideal, the best, or the most optimal education. In the last several decades, courts have generally ruled that an education is appropriate if it provides “some educational benefit.” In the Endrew v. Douglas County case last year, the Supreme Court ruled that there must be a “meaningful” educational benefit in order for the education to be considered “appropriate.” In the aftermath of this case, not only must schools provide the opportunity for the special ed student to obtain marginal growth, but must show that they are providing an adequate program that enables the student to achieve “more than trivial improvement.”

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Even with these clarifying words, one can easily see how parents and school districts often arrive at different views on what constitutes “appropriate” for their child. As mentioned previously, the best remedy is to stay involved and connected. There are several means through which a parent can ascertain if their child is being given adequate access to education. The primary means that a parent has are the annual goals for the exceptional learner. These are developed based on evaluation and examination data, as well as noted areas of struggle. It is important as a parent to advocate for your child and ensure that appropriate goals are set at the annual meeting.  These goals should be rigorous enough to be challenging, and yet relevant to the child’s ability level. Secondly, parents can provide input on the supports that are put in place to achieve the agreed upon goals. These supports include assistive technology, a variety of fidget gadgets, extra individualized support from a paraeducator, preferential placement in class, and many more. The important thing as a parent is to speak up and ask. The school has expertise, but the parent is a key part of the team and the only one with a truly lifelong investment in the special needs child.

In addition to the above steps, a parent can investigate additional at-home supports such as tutoring. Unless it can be demonstrated that this constitutes part of an “appropriate” education such as a home bound student, the district is not required to pay for or supply a tutor. However, as a parent it is important to consider how an investment in either a tutor or advocate may accelerate your student’s progress and may in some cases greatly enhance their educational outcome.

In summary, if you want your child to improve over the long haul, stay active and up-to-date on what the school is doing and be an equal part of the team.