Special Ed 101: Free Appropriate Public Education

What does Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) really mean?

We often hear the word “free,” but do you know how it applies to special education? Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 legally requires all public schools to provide free and appropriate education to students with disabilities, but what does it mean? To better understand, it is best to know how  “free” & “appropriate” are defined in terms of the services provided by the school.

The following tips give meaning to a “free” special education:

  • Public schools must provide students with disabilities all education services that are provided to students without disabilities, which may include specially designed instruction to meet the unique needs of the student.
  • The school must also provide free services, such as therapies (physical, occupational, or speech therapy) that are required for the student to access the general education curriculum. “Access to general education” are the key words in determining what services the school provides. Although a student may qualify for therapy for medical purposes, they may not require it for school. The student must have an educational deficit that prevents them from accessing the general education curriculum without receiving the services. If the school asks a family to use their medical insurance to pay for the services, the family has the choice to decline because it is not required. By choosing not to use the student’s health insurance for services at school, the family can use the insurance for the student to receive therapy for medical purposes outside of school. For example, a student may qualify to receive speech therapy at school without insurance while also using insurance for therapy at an outpatient clinic.
  • Transportation to attend school is another free service public schools must provide students with disabilities even if it requires specialized or adapted transportation.
  • All the services that the school will provide for the student should be written in the Individual Education Plan (IEP).

Now, that we have outlined the meaning “free,” here are a few points to define “appropriate” education.

  • In addition to the services that the school will provide, an IEP should also outline what individualized instruction will be given to help the student succeed. To monitor the student’s success, the IEP also includes goals that are measurable and appropriate for the student’s unique needs. Although a paraprofessional or teaching assistant may help a student in the classroom, a special education teacher who is responsible for tracking data on the student’s specific goals should be the person to teach the individualized instruction. It is an ongoing process to review what the student is working on and what additional support might be needed to achieve the IEP goals, which should occur and be documented in a progress report every 9 weeks.
  • The school environment must also be “appropriate” for the student. The school is required to place the student in the “least restrictive environment (LRE)” which means supports should start in the general education classroom and then move to more restrictive environments, such as a special education classroom, as needed. The goal should always be to provide available supports for the student to be with peers in the general education classroom. This should also include opportunities for the student to interact with peers as much as possible throughout the day. For this to be successful,
  • collaboration should occur between a general education teacher, special education teacher, and related service providers to ensure all the student’s needs are being addressed.

As always feel free to contact Pathfinder (800.640.4636 or tnpathfinder@vumc.org), if we can help in any way. This information can be overwhelming, and we want to ensure that you feel equipped in the IEP process. Remember, public school education needs to be both “free” and “appropriate.”