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What is Available By Law

If parents have concerns about whether their child is in an appropriate educational placement, they should begin by becoming familiar with the answers to two key questions:

Since 1975, federal laws require that all students with disabilities receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) to ensure that every student make meaningful progress in their education.

FAPE ensures that all students with disabilities receive an appropriate public education at no cost to families. What is “appropriate” depends on the unique needs of the student.

 FAPE also ensures that students make meaningful progress in the general education curriculum. How is “meaningful” defined? In 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that children with disabilities are entitled to an “appropriately ambitious” education that offers more than minimal benefit. (For more information, see US Dept of Education’s Q & A on U. S. Supreme Court Case Decision Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District: https://sites.ed.gov/idea/questions-and-answers-qa-on-u-s-supreme-court-case-decision-endrew-f-v-douglas-county-school-district-re-1/ or pdf: https://sites.ed.gov/idea/files/qa-endrewcase-12-07-2017.pdf) 

FAPE also guarantees students’ right to be full participants in the life of the school (including extracurricular activities), with the assistance of aids and services if needed.

FAPE is closely tied to Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). LRE refers to the place where children with disabilities can receive an education designed to meet their needs, alongside peers without disabilities as much as appropriate. The law expresses a strong preference, but not a mandate, for educating children in regular classes with peers who do not have disabilities.


LRE is based on the child’s needs, not their disability. Schools cannot simply say that if a child has autism, they are automatically placed in the school’s separate autism classroom. Some children might do well in the general education classroom with support (less restrictive) and some may need a separate classroom or even a separate school (more restrictive). It depends on the child’s individual needs.

Public schools are required to make every effort to include children with special needs in general education classrooms before considering an alternative, more restrictive setting. Decisions about FAPE and LRE must be made individually and carefully. For more information in English, Spanish, or Portuguese, see A Parent’s Guide to Special Education

Public school districts are required to provide a continuum of alternate special education placements to meet the needs of all children with disabilities. The IEP team may determine that the child cannot be served in the general education classroom, even with additional aids and services. Parents should make sure that the school has tried all available supports both in the classroom (called push-in services) and outside of the classroom (called pull-out services). At this point, an alternative placement must be considered. 

These alternative placement options include:

  • separate, special education classrooms within a public school
  • specialized schools (including private special education day and residential schools)
  • home instruction
  • instruction in hospitals and institutions

There is a page on every child’s IEP that shows how their placement is described (see Placement Consent Form for K-21 year-olds at this link: https://www.doe.mass.edu/sped/iep/forms/english). 

Having a range of placements available is intended to ensure that a child with a disability can be educated successfully in the LRE. The individual needs of each child must be met. For each child, the school must ask: “What is the LRE for this child, given the disability?”