Special Education

Topic Menu

Subtopics included are:

What is Special Education?

Special Education is the term used for services and supports that schools provide to ensure that children with disabilities have access to the regular education curriculum (course of study) at their school and can, as much as possible, take part in in school activities, classes, and events.
On this page we will define the terms, rules, and laws over Special Education and the services it provides.

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)

The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the federal law that guarantees the right of public school students to go to school and access the regular education curriculum. IDEA was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1975 and was originally called the "Education of All Handicapped Children Act." Congress has amended and renamed the law several times (IDEA 2004, aka IDEIA). IDEA guarantees children with disabilities access to a free appropriate public education (also called FAPE) in the least restrictive environment (LRE).
IDEA defines special education as specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parent, that meets the unique needs of a child with a disability, including classroom instruction, physical education instruction, home instruction, and instruction in hospitals and other institutions.
Special Education includes related services such as transportation and development, corrective, and other supportive services that may be required to assist a child with a disability to benefit from special education including identification and assessment of disabling conditions in children. Supportive services include assistive technology, speech-language pathology, audiology, psychological services, physical and occupational therapy, recreation and therapeutic recreation, social work, counseling and rehabilitation counseling, orientation and mobility services, and medical services, except that such medical services shall be for diagnostic and evaluation purposes only.
Special Education may also include vocational education. If vocational education includes specially designed instruction that meets the unique needs of a child with a disability, it may be offered at no cost to the parent.
Part B of IDEA 2004 outlines the Special Education process which is available to eligible students with disabilities, age 3 through graduation, or until age 22, including Special Education preschool which serves children with disabilities ages 3 to 5.
IDEA does not generally apply to private schools. It guarantees children the right to a public education. However, IDEA does require school districts to identify all children with disabilities, regardless of whether they attend public or private schools. There may be rare situations when a public school district will pay for a child to attend a private school because it cannot provide FAPE in its public schools. IDEA, however, does apply to all public charter schools.

Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)

Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) is defined as follows:
  • At no cost to parents; the school district pays for the child’s schooling
  • Includes all students, no matter their disability
  • Available for students no matter where they live
  • Available through the local public school
  • Not usually available if the student goes to a private school
  • Available regardless of whether the child is failing or is advancing from grade to grade
  • Students can receive help in classes like reading, writing, and math - any subjects available to nondisabled students.
  • Includes help with social skills or behavior intervention plans that the child needs to be able to learn in school.
  • Provides services like speech, physical therapy, or counseling. (These are called "related services.”)

Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)

Least restrictive environment (LRE) describes the setting in which the student will learn. IDEA assumes that students with disabilities will be in a regular classroom, with their typical peers, whenever possible. If students need extra help or services to remain in the regular classroom, those services must be provided. Only if a student cannot make educational progress in a regular classroom, even with help, should a student be placed in a separate classroom or facility. A team of people who have special expertise and knowledge about the student's needs, including the student’s parents and the student, decides the student's placement when they write the Individualized Education Plan (IEP).
Parents have the right to be informed (in writing, in their native language) of the procedural safeguards (legal rights) that are available to them. Copies of these rights must be provided by the school at certain points in the process.
The following diagram gives an outline of the Special Education Process:

Special Education Process: Referral>Evaluation>Eligibility>IEP>Placement>Annual Review (goes back to Evaluation)


Information & Support

For Parents and Patients

Center for Parent Information and Resources (DOE)
Parent centers in every state provide training to parents of children with disabilities and provide information about special education, transition to adulthood, health care, support groups, local conferences and other federal, state, and local services. See the "Find Your Parent Center Link" to find the parent center in your state; Department of Education, Office of Special Education.

National Center on Secondary Education and Transition
This easy-to-use website provides information about transition during high school and to opportunities after high school including jobs, vocational education, and college. Provides links to contacts in each state for State Transition Contact, Regional Resource Center Contact, State Director of Special Education, Part B Contact, and State Director or Vocational Rehabilitation.

NIMAS, IDEA regulation for access to instructional materials
Provides data and technical information about the National Instructional Materials Accessibility Standard (NIMAS), which was designed to make it easier and faster for students with disabilities to obtain accessible instructional materials in accordance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

Services for Patients & Families in Montana (MT)

For services not listed above, browse our Services categories or search our database.

* number of provider listings may vary by how states categorize services, whether providers are listed by organization or individual, how services are organized in the state, and other factors; Nationwide (NW) providers are generally limited to web-based services, provider locator services, and organizations that serve children from across the nation.

Authors & Reviewers

Initial publication: September 2013; last update/revision: December 2018
Current Authors and Reviewers:
Author: Gina Pola-Money
Reviewer: Shena McAuliffe, MFA