By Andrew H. Hook, CELA

Federal law stipulates that all children with disabilities are entitled to a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive setting possible. That’s a broad—and vague—directive. As a result, special ed procedures and services vary widely throughout the U.S., sometimes differing markedly throughout a single state.

What remains consistent, though, is the school district’s responsibility to identify children requiring special education, followed by determination by a Committee for Special Education (CSE) of what should be included in eligible students’ Individualized Education Plans (IEPs). If a school district is unable to provide needed services, it must pay to have them delivered elsewhere.

I recommend that parents consult a special education attorney if they have a serious disagreement with the school district. Most school districts negotiate in good faith to provide appropriate services for a student. However, disagreements occur. Families that have a loved one with special needs are usually very time-constrained, and the special ed system is a maze. Parents typically make mistakes while learning its intricacies. A special education attorney can quickly explain a family’s rights, resources and responsibilities, enabling them to more effectively advocate for their child. Legal counsel can also represent parents during the sometimes-contentious IEP discussions.

Our nationwide budget debates have significant implications for special education, with school districts varying in their strategy for allocating scarce dollars. Some are choosing to control costs by lowering services. Others are responding by working more closely with parents to ensure the most productive use of resources. I’m aware of some districts that will quickly consent to the demands of vocal parents rather than face the possibility of having to pay attorney fees. On the other hand, when school districts are unable to provide necessary services, rather than pay to have them provided by someone else, they may pressure parents to accept less-than-optimal alternatives.

As part of the growing dialogue concerning the best allocation of scarce education dollars, some educators are pushing to have special ed regulations weakened. The strain within small school districts is often particularly intense, since special education usually consumes a greater proportion of their resources. A shortage of special ed teachers further complicates the situation.

Individuals with special needs and their families have high expectations concerning their ability to become productive members of the community. Special education is meant to prepare for that future. Parents must actively shape their children’s special education experience so that their loved ones can lead lives that are as independent and self-directed as possible.