IDEA: What Legally Protects the Rights of Children with Disabilities
Public Law (P.L.) 94-142, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act, was passed by Congress in August 1975, grandfathered by the antidiscrimination law Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas (1954), under which African Americans sought admission to public schools on a nonsegregated basis. Before 1975, there was no national legislation covering the evaluation and education of students with disabilities. Public Law 94-142 was later reinterpreted or reauthorized in 1990 as IDEA; additional provisions were added in 1997 and most recently in the IDEA Improvement Act of 2004 with provisions effective July 1, 2005. IDEA is the main federal law that provides for the education of disabled youth ages 3 to 21 years and was extended downward from birth to 3 years by P.L. 99-457 amendments.
IDEA provides federal financial assistance so that state and local education agencies have additional funding for identified students. IDEA is the funding act for special education. The purpose of federal assistance is to support a free and appropriate public education (FAPE) for students with disabilities. A FAPE includes the rights of appropriate assessment and identification (i.e., protection against discriminatory assessment and the rights of due process of assessment, placement, and programming procedures) and appropriate education (i.e., a program designed to provide “educational benefits” and related services, if necessary, in order for the students to benefit from specially designed instruction).
If the parent disagrees with the school’s evaluation and the hearing officer concurs, there is a provision for independent educational evaluation at district expense. Parents may also initiate due process procedures under IDEA and address the nonprovision of a FAPE. IDEA is enforced by the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs, and compliance is monitored by state departments of education.
IDEA delegates specific responsibilities to local school systems to locate and educate children with disabilities. If the school system has reason to suspect that the child has a disability (e.g., indicated by comments in the report card) but fails to act by referring the child for a comprehensive special education evaluation, they have failed in their obligation to find, evaluate (the “Child-Find Mandate”), and provide a FAPE for a child with a disability. House Resolution 1350 (2004) provided further clarification on this issue. That is, parents must have put into writing to school personnel that their child needs special education services (with an exception of an illiterate parent or a parent with a disability). Clearly, school systems are not responsible for providing a FAPE when parents have refused evaluation for services or the child’s evaluation failed to document a disability.
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