In a world of budget cuts, staffing shortages and larger class sizes, understanding the laws that surround special education programs in U.S. schools is crucial to building an inclusive learning environment for every student — from those with physical and learning disabilities, to exceptionally gifted children, and every child in between.
The National Center for Education Statistics estimates roughly 70 percent of today’s students are enrolled in elementary or middle schools. Consequently, the number of children and adults with special education needs is likely to rise at the same time educators are putting an increased focus on college and career readiness for all.
With more attention focused on inclusive classrooms, it’s in the best interests of teachers and parents to understand the legal requirements, costs and goals of special education programs in public schools.
Advice for teachers and parents
The first priority for teachers and parents is to identify special needs students and figure out how to give them equal education opportunities. They should begin by asking two important questions:
- Does the student qualify for special education under IDEA?
- What is an appropriate education for a special needs student?
This Q&A will help parents and teachers answer these important questions — and many others.
Browse through the content or use these links to jump to your desired destination:
How are inclusive learning environments defined?
1. What is special education?
Special education focuses on academic programs that help individuals who are physically, mentally or emotionally impaired. Included are severely disabled students, as well as those with mild to moderate language difficulties, hearing impairments, and cognitive or emotional disabilities that hinder learning.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act specifies that “any person who has a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities, has any record of such an impairment, or is regarded as having such an impairment” qualifies for a free appropriate public education (FAPE).
2. What is a least-restrictive learning environment?
The phrase “least-restrictive” environment means schools that receive public funding have an obligation to give all students the opportunity to learn in regular classrooms to the greatest extent possible. Schools are required by law to allow special education students to participate in a standard learning environment along with nondisabled students.
In some cases, students with severe disabilities may spend a portion of their time in special classrooms or environments designed to accommodate their particular disabilities. However, the majority of their time (as much as 80 to 95 percent) is spent in regular classrooms alongside nondisabled students.
3. What is special education inclusion?
Inclusion means giving all students access to regular classrooms, instruction and learning opportunities. Although the term “inclusive classrooms” is relatively new, it complies with the original intention of laws passed by Congress, beginning with the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) of 1975.
IDEA was amended in 2012 to make provisions for measuring the academic success of special education programs against testing standards set for students in regular classrooms. The purpose of inclusive classrooms is to provide an education for special needs students alongside nondisabled students in K-12 schools that receive public funding. The intent of IDEA, therefore, is not simply to give students with disabilities access to an appropriate education but also to include them within regular classrooms rather than isolating them.
What do statistics reveal about special education programs?
4. How many students with learning disabilities are in U.S. schools?
More than 6 million students are estimated to receive special education services in the United States each year. This represents about 12 percent of the total population of 49.8 million K-12 students, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
- The NCES estimates 35.1 million of the nation’s K-12 students in 2014 were enrolled in pre-K through eighth grade.
- The U.S. Department of Education reports more than 1 million U.S. children from infancy to age 5 were classified as requiring special education in 2012.
5. What are the most common disabilities among special education students?
According to the U.S. Department of Education, the three most prevalent disability categories among children 3-5 years old in 2012 were:
- Speech or language impairments: 44.7 percent
- Developmental delay: 37.2 percent
- Autism: 7.8 percent
6. Are students from low-income families more likely to be enrolled in special education programs?
Yes. The majority of students classified specifically as having learning disabilities come from impoverished environments. However, not all students identified as having learning disabilities live in big cities. Students with special education needs are as likely to live in rural areas as they are to reside in urban settings.
The U.S. Census Bureau reports West Virginia leads the nation with the largest number of K-12 students enrolled in special education programs.
According to 2010 Census Bureau statistics, other states with disproportionate numbers of students classified as having physical, cognitive or learning disabilities are:
- New Hampshire
- New York
- North Carolina
How do teachers and schools identify students with special education needs?
7. How should parents and teachers identify special education students?
The best way to identify a child with special education needs is for parents, teachers, physicians and other professionals to collaborate.
Parents who suspect their child may have a learning disability should:
- Consult with a family physician, who will conduct visual, hearing and various cognitive tests to measure the child’s age-appropriate abilities.
- Meet with the child’s teacher(s) and discuss the student’s classroom performance, with the shared goal of bringing the student up to speed in a regular classroom.
- Seek assistance from speech therapists and other special education professionals who can evaluate the student’s age-appropriate progress.
8. Why is early identification of special education students so important?
Studies have found that after about age 7 it is difficult to bring children with disabilities that affect learning up to grade-level performance. Students with mild to severe physical and mental disabilities have varying degrees of special needs that require teachers to focus on building consistent classroom environments with paced instruction, individualized lesson planning, and behavior management.
The sooner students with special needs are given these considerations, the quicker they can assimilate into regular classrooms and begin learning at their grade level.
Students with special needs who do not receive early intervention drop out of high school at disproportionately higher rates than nondisabled students. Some estimates place the dropout rate for disabled students as high as twice that of other students, which ultimately costs society far more than it does to educate them properly.
9. What role should doctors play in identifying special education students?
Family physicians play an important role in helping to identify infants and young children with physical and cognitive disabilities.
However, it is the responsibility of parents and teachers to determine if a child has a learning disability that requires special education. Federal laws are intended to make it easier for parents and teachers to identify special education students and to help those children receive a free appropriate public education.
10. What can parents and teachers do if they think a child has been misidentified as a special education student?
The law protects children from being misidentified as special education students by requiring schools to use procedures that safeguard against misclassifying disabled students.
Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act provides opportunities for parents and guardians to challenge special education placement decisions and to review their child’s school records. This is particularly important for students identified as having mild or moderate learning disabilities.
Parents who believe their child has been misclassified are entitled to request, at no cost, a formal meeting to discuss their concerns with the teacher, school principal and special education staff.
What laws govern special education students in public schools?
11. What are public schools required to provide special education students?
Federal laws require schools that receive public funds to provide disabled students greater access to education in the least-restrictive environment possible. All students 3 to 21 years old in schools that receive any public funding must be provided with an “appropriate education,” according to federal law.
This means schools are required to provide students who have physical, cognitive and learning disabilities with an education that is comparable to nondisabled students. If the school cannot accommodate the student’s needs alongside nondisabled students in a regular classroom, the school must provide an environment that meets all education requirements.
Section 504 of the 1973 Rehabilitation Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) stipulate that K-12 public schools give students with disabilities opportunities to learn in regular classrooms alongside nondisabled students to the fullest extent possible. Section 504 states that excluding or segregating persons with disabilities is considered discrimination.
12. Why is DOE vs. Withers important to teachers?
DOE vs. Withers is a 1993 landmark court case in which the parents of a special education student sued his school, its principal and a teacher. It was the first case in which a teacher was required to pay damages for failing to comply with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
The teacher, who taught history at a West Virginia high school, had refused to read tests aloud to a 16-year-old student, as required by the IDEA accommodation.
An important factor in the court’s decision was evidence showing the history teacher was made aware of the child’s learning disability and was asked to comply with the special accommodation requirement by the principal, a special education teacher and the school’s director of special education.
Because the teacher willfully refused to provide the oral test accommodation, a jury ruled in favor of the parents. The jury awarded compensatory damages of $5,000 and punitive damages of $10,000 to the parents. The school, principal and special education director were dismissed as co-defendants, leaving the teacher solely responsible for the monetary damages.
How do schools classify learning difficulties, developmental delays and inclusive classrooms?
13. Are learning difficulties considered special education needs?
Yes. The majority of all students placed in special education programs are classified specifically with learning disabilities, as opposed to severe physical or cognitive disabilities — such as total blindness and deafness, traumatic brain injury or severe birth defects.
The number of students classified as having mild or moderate learning disabilities rose by about 200 percent from 1975 to 2004, when nearly half of all special education students were classified exclusively as learning disabled, according to data available from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). Over the past 10 years, NCES reports the number of learning disabled students has dropped below 40 percent.
14. Are developmental delays the same as learning disabilities?
No. Learning disabilities should not be confused with developmental delays, which generally apply to infants and children younger than 4. Although developmental delays frequently lead to learning disabilities, they often include severe physical disabilities and cognitive disorders such as extreme vision or hearing loss, debilitating movement and motor skills, and severe dyslexia.
Federal laws that address special education needs include diagnostic programs for identifying children with developmental delays. However, the term “learning disabilities” usually refers to less severe physical and cognitive classifications and/or emotional causes.
15. Are inclusive classrooms compatible with differentiated instruction?
Yes. Inclusive classrooms and differentiated instruction share the same objectives. Both focus on diversity and providing equal access to education for all students.
- Differentiated instruction is designed to accommodate diversity, but focuses on curriculum development, teaching styles and learning techniques.
- Differentiated instruction is intended to allow regular students from diverse backgrounds to sit together in classrooms while learning different curriculum at their own pace.
- Inclusive classrooms allow children with learning difficulties and special education needs to work side by side with their peers.
What do federal laws mandate for special education students?
16. Who pays for mandatory special education services?
Taxes pay for special education services in schools that receive public funding. However, states and local school districts bear the brunt of special education costs mandated by the federal government.
Costs for accommodating special education students are up to 90 percent higher than for nondisabled students. Rough estimates place the federal government’s contribution to K-12 special education costs at less than 10 percent while states and local school districts share about equally in the remaining expenditures.
Special education expenditures include but are not limited to:
- Construction costs for accommodations like wheelchair access.
- Vans and buses designed to transport physically disabled students.
- Large-print reading materials, Braille text and other visual aids.
- Computers and other technologies that assist students with physical disabilities.
- Salaries of specially licensed teachers, school nurses, psychologists and various paraprofessionals.
17. What does “free” mean when it comes to special education?
The federal mandate that schools provide a free appropriate public education for students with special needs means schools must bear all reasonable additional costs of accommodating special education students.
Various federal, state and local taxes help pay for special education. Schools are prohibited from passing the additional costs of accommodating special education on to the parents or guardians of students with special needs, including those with learning, physical and cognitive disabilities.
18. What are assistive technologies and services for special education?
Assistive support tools and services can include everything from computer technologies that enhance learning to specially designed vehicles. Assistive technologies may also include:
- Audiology services such as voice recordings and digital-audio streaming technologies, headsets and additional devices to assist hearing-impaired students.
- Voice-recognition software and language translation services that assist students with language impairments and/or severe learning disabilities.
- Assistive technologies and professional services such as motorized wheelchairs and physical therapy, respectively.
- Diagnostic tools such as evaluation exercises, progress reports and grade-level assessments.
19. Are schools required to provide assistive technologies and learning tools to help special education students?
Yes. Schools are expected to provide reasonable accommodations for special education students. If similar technology is provided to regular students, schools must make them available to disabled students.
For example, all technological resources — including computer hardware, software, Internet access to websites and cloud-based programs — that are available to nondisabled students must be made available to students with physical, cognitive and learning disabilities in schools that receive public funding.
This means the learning environment, classroom and other facilities, materials and equipment, including any assistive technologies, must be comparable to those provided to nondisabled students.
Who is qualified to teach special education students in regular classes?
20. What types of teachers are good at managing inclusive classrooms?
Intelligent, compassionate teachers are well suited for managing inclusive classrooms. The same qualities that distinguish excellent teachers from average teachers are necessary for managing inclusive classrooms.
Inclusive classroom teacher qualities include:
- Patience, tolerance and compassion.
- Empathy for students from diverse backgrounds.
- Commitment to students with different learning abilities.
- Good organizational skills and multitasking capabilities.
- Strong classroom management and procedural skills.
21. What role do advocates play in implementing special education programs?
A special education advocate works on behalf of parents or guardians of students with special needs. The advocate coordinates with school leaders, administrators, health professionals, psychologists and teachers to make sure the child’s needs are met, including accommodations and services required by federal, state and local laws.
Although school officials sometimes view special education advocates as adversaries, they can help prevent litigation against a school, district or teacher. Various organizations offer certification and licensing for special education advocates.
The National Association of School Nurses (NASN) suggests that nurse practitioners (NPs) play important roles toward implementing every school’s program under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
The NASN emphasizes that IDEA requires, in certain cases, the school nurse to coordinate health services designated to implement programs for students with physical and cognitive disabilities. Teams may include a school nurse practitioner, health aide, psychologist, counselor and other special education advocates.
How do you know if special education requirements are working?
22. How do parents and teachers measure learning progress for special education students?
Parents and teachers are responsible for working together to make sure every child is learning at his or her grade level.
For students in special education programs, legal provisions require schools to test and measure the yearly performance of students under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
The law assists teachers and parents in determining whether a child with physical, cognitive, emotional or learning disabilities is making annual progress. Each state is required to report whether it needs assistance or requires intervention.
Unfortunately, for parents of disabled children annual progress reports may be too little too late. Fortunately, the law requires schools to implement an Individualized Education Program (IEP) with progress evaluations for each participating student.
IEPs may include:
- Aptitude and achievement tests.
- Physical evaluations.
- Social, cultural and behavior reports.
- Teacher recommendations that reflect the child’s age, disability, diversity and grade-level expectations.
At the end of the day, parents or guardians are expected to collaborate with teachers to help their child receive an appropriate education and ensure that all students are prepared for college and career.
Special Education Center
Here are more resources on the intersection of special education and college and career readiness:
- Asperger’s Syndrome: Defining and Determining Asperger’s Symptoms
- Behavior Management Techniques for the Inclusive Classroom
- "36th Annual Report to Congress on the Implementation of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, 2014," U.S. Department of Education
- "Free Appropriate Public Education for Students With Disabilities: Requirements Under Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act of 1973," U.S. Department of Education
- "School-Aged Children With Disabilities in U.S. Metropolitan Statistical Areas: 2010," U.S. Census Bureau
- "Together We Learn Better: Inclusive Schools Benefit All Children," Inclusive Schools Network
- "Selected Job Profiles in Special Education," Council for Exceptional Children
- "Exceptional Teachers Teaching Exceptional Children," National Association of Special Education Teachers
- "AIM for Educators," National Center on Accessible Instructional Materials