What is Special Education?

Special education is when a child receives specialized instruction in school for their disability. The disability categories are:

  • Autism

  • Deaf-Blindness

  • Deafness

  • Emotional Disturbance

  • Hearing Impairment

  • Intellectual Disability

  • Multiple Disabilities

  • Orthopedic Impairment

  • Other Health Impairment

  • Speech or Language Impairment

  • Specific Learning Disability

  • Traumatic Brain Injury

  • Visual Impairment including Blindness

  • Developmental Delay (ages 0-5 only)


How does a child become a special education student?

The Referral Process

A child needs to be referred to the special education department in order for the identification process to begin. Ways that a child may get referred:

  • “Child Find”: School districts are required to complete a screening process to find any students that may have a disability. This has to happen during the first 30 days of the school year or during the first 30 days that a new student transfers into a new school.

  • Parent Referral: A parent can make a referral to the special education department at any time.

  • Teacher/School Staff Referral: Teachers and school staff can make a special education referral at any point throughout the year.


The Individual Educational Program (IEP) Team

Once a child is referred to the special education department, the Individual Educational Program (IEP) Team is formed! The Team may include:

  • Parent
  • Administrator
  • Regular Education Teacher
  • Special Education Teacher
  • Any individual with knowledge of the child, invited by the parent
  • Child's case manager
  • If reviewing evaluations, the person who conducted the evaluation

The IEP Team makes the following decisions about a child:

  • What evaluations are needed

  • Does the child have a disability, and if so, which one

  • What special education services does your child need

  • Where will your child get those services

  • What modifications does your child need in school

Parents are equal members of the team and have a right to express concerns and preferences. The school must invite you to every IEP Team meeting and give you notice that a meeting is happening at least 7 days before. If the parent is unable to attend at the time on the notice, they can ask for the meeting to be rescheduled.

Everyone at the IEP Team meeting must agree on decisions being made. If everyone does not agree, the final decision will be made by the school administrator who is at the meeting.  If you disagree, you have a right to use the dispute resolution procedures.


Referral Meeting

When a child is referred to an IEP Team, they will need an initial evaluation to determine if they have a disability that requires special education services. The first meeting will be to decide what evaluations need to be done with the child.

The child must be evaluated in any area of suspected disability. For example, if a child’s reading level is below grade level, the suspected disability may be a specific learning disability. The evaluation that would be required would be academic testing.

This meeting must happen no later than 15 school days after the referral was made. The parent will need to sign a consent form that allows the school to do the recommended evaluations. The consent must be informed which means the parent has the right to:

  • Ask specific questions about what kinds of evaluations will be conducted

  • Ask what is involved with each evaluations

  • Say no to certain types of evaluations or certain parts of an evaluation.

You do not have the right to insist on a specific evaluator.

(Note: A meeting does not need to be held at this point. The school district may decide to just send you a consent form in the mail. This must also happen within 15 days to the referral.)

If a teacher or school staff has made the referral, the team may decide to try a few things in the classroom before doing evaluations. These are typically called interventions. Once these interventions are in place, the team will need to meet in 60 days and then every 30 after that to see if the interventions are helping the child. These interventions may not hold up a special education referral! If the parent wants the special education referral to be completed, you have a right to ask for it at any time.


Who Does Evaluations for Students in Private Schools or Who Are Being Homeschooled?

The public school district where the private school is located or where the child is being homeschooled, is responsible doing the evaluations. The timeline for completing evaluations is the same.   



Evaluations completed through the special education process are completed at no cost to families. Once the consent form is signed by the parent, the school has 45 school days to complete the evaluations and hold an IEP Team Meeting to discuss the results. The school is required to get you a copy of the evaluations at least 3 calendar days before the IEP Team Meeting.

Acceptable reasons for evaluations not be completed within the 45 school day timeframe:

  • The child transfers to a new school in the middle of the evaluation process. The original school will be given the chance to finish the evaluation within the original 45 school days. If that is not possible, the old and new school and the parent need to agree on when the evaluations will be completed.

  • If the parent repeatedly does not bring the child to the scheduled evaluation.

The school district is required to re-evaluate a child at least every three years. This is call the child’s triennial evaluation. The school and the parent can agree to not conducting the re-evaluation if they do not think it is necessary.

A parent can request evaluations at any time. The school cannot evaluate a child more than once a year unless the school and parent agree. Consent forms need to be signed before any evaluation, the first or any re-evaluation, can occur.  


What if you disagree with the results of an evaluation?

If you disagree with the evaluation that is completed by the school district, you have a right to ask for an independent educational evaluation (IEE) at public expense. Once you ask for an IEE, the school has 30 days to either:

  • File a due process hearing request to try and show that the evaluation they have done is appropriate, or

  • Approve your request

If you have evaluations that were done outside of the school setting, you have a right to bring them to the IEP Team Meeting. The Team must consider those evaluations in the decision-making process. You cannot be required to give the school an evaluation that was done outside of the school setting. It is up to you if you would like to share the evaluation.


Individualized Education Plans (IEPs)

Once it is determined that a child qualifies for special education services, they must have an Individualized Education Program (IEP). IEP development timeline:

  • The IEP needs to be written within 30 calendar days of the child being eligible for services.

  • The parent must be given a copy of the IEP within 21 school days of the IEP Team Meeting.

  • Whatever services are included in the child’s IEP need to be provided within 30 days of developing the IEP. 


What if the school does not have the required resources to provide the child’s services?

If the school cannot hire or contract with the professional who needs to provide a service in the child's IEP, the IEP Team must meet within 30 calendar days. The team must decide how the needed services will be provided  and how to make up for the services that the child did not get.


What should be included in a child’s IEP?

The IEP sets out goals for the child that work on academic, functional and developmental (ages 0-5 only) skills.

Examples of academic skills include:

  • Reading

  • Math

  • Reading Skills/Comprehension


Examples of functional skills include:

  • Communication

  • Coordination

  • Social/emotional skills

  • Sensory (hearing, seeing, feeling, touching)

The goals in the child’s IEP must be “reasonably calculated” to allow the child to get some benefit from their education. This does not mean that the best program possible. The program needs to benefit the child and the child should make progress on their goals each year. This requirement is called a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).

Every child is entitled to a FAPE in what is call the “least restrictive environment” (LRE). One of the goals of IDEA is to have disabled students educated around non-disabled students as much as possible. It is the job of the IEP Team to decide what environment a child can be educated in with supports available through the special education program. Examples of different school environments include:

  • Mainstream classroom

  • Special Education or Resource Room

  • Special Purpose Private School

  • Residential Facility or Hospital


Progress Review

The IEP Team must review the child’s IEP at least once a year. This is called the annual review. The purpose of the annual review is to see if the child is meeting their annual goals. You or the school can ask for an IEP Team meeting at any time.

The school must give 7 days written notice before it:

  • Proposes to start or change the child’s identification category, evaluation, or educational placement, or

  • Refuses to start or change a child’s identification, evaluation, or educational placement.