The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the nation’s federal special education law that ensures public schools serve the educational needs of students with disabilities. IDEA requires that schools provide special education services to eligible students as outlined in a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).

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IDEA also provides very specific requirements to guarantee a free appropriate public education (FAPE) for students with disabilities in the least restrictive environment (LRE). FAPE and LRE are the protected rights of every eligible child, in all fifty states and U.S. Territories.

IDEA requires every state to issue regulations that guide the implementation of the federal law within the state. At a minimum, state regulations must provide all of the protections contained in IDEA. Some states may have additional requirements that go beyond the federal law. Many states offer handbooks or guides to help parents understand these state-specific policies and procedures.

IDEA and Specific Learning Disabilities

As of 2011, more than 6 million school-age children in the United States receive special education services as a result of IDEA. More than forty percent—some 2.2 million—are students identified with a specific learning disability.

IDEA requires that parents participate in the team that discusses the child’s learning needs and determines if the school should conduct a comprehensive evaluation if it is suspected that the child has a learning disability (LD). However, not every child with a disability may qualify for special education services. In order to be eligible for these services, the student must both have a disability and, as a result of that disability, need special education in order to make progress in school and in order to receive benefit from the general educational program. The identification process can be complex; tools to help navigate the process can be found on

Individualized Education Program (IEP)

Once a student has been formally evaluated and found eligible for special education services, the parents work with a school team to develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP is a formal a contract outlining the services and support the school will provide in order for the child to benefit from the educational program. An IEP must be developed before a student can begin receiving special education services and it must be reviewed and updated each year. This annual review is required for as long as the student remains eligible for special education services.

While each state differs in how they develop an IEP, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act requires that every IEP include the following:

  • how the student is currently performing in school;
  • how the student can achieve educational goals in the coming year; and,
  • how the student will participate in the general education curriculum.

Parental Involvement

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) provides specific procedural safeguards to help parents advocate for their child’s educational well-being. It promotes parents’ involvement in the education of their child and gives them the necessary tools to be key decision makers. The federal law allows parents to participate in all meetings concerning their child, examine their child’s school records, request an independent evaluation and agree or disagree with placement decisions.

IDEA is a complex law that can be difficult to understand. NCLD offers a parent-friendly guide with checklists, tips and tools to help parents embrace ways to make the law work for their child. Many parents have questions about their child’s rights, which is why every state is required to have at least one Parent Training and Information Center (PTI). The center’s primary purpose is to provide parents with timely information about special education so that they may effectively participate in meeting the educational needs of their children. Many states also have Community Parent Resource Centers (CPRC) that are designed to serve the needs of low-income parents, parents of children with limited English proficiency and parents with disabilities.

Further Reading

IDEA 2004: Improving Transition Planning and Results

IDEA 2004 Final Regulations Update

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the nation’s federal special education law that ensures public schools serve the educational needs of students with disabilities. IDEA requires that schools provide special education services to eligible students as outlined in a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP).

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