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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:

What are children’s rights under the law?

Since 1975, federal laws require that all students with disabilities receive a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE)1 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 [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 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. LRE is based on the child’s needs, not their disability. The law expresses a strong preference, but not a mandate, for educating children in regular classes with peers who do not have disabilities. What this means is that public schools have 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, see A Parent’s Guide to Special Education.

What are public school districts obligated by law to provide?

The IEP team may determine that the child cannot be served in the general education classroom, even with additional aids and services. At this point, an alternative placement must be considered. Schools are required to ensure that a continuum of alternative special education placements is available to meet the needs of children with disabilities.2 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

Having a continuum of placements available is intended to ensure that a child with a disability can be educated successfully in the LRE.3 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?”4


1IDEA §§300.114 through 300.117 and 71 Fed. Reg. 46585
2IDEA §300.115(a)
371 Fed. Reg. 46587
471 Fed. Reg. 46586