Special education law covers the legal issues involved in the provision of special education programs to students with disabilities. Lawyers who work in this area represent families of these students, school districts and government agencies. This could be very rewarding work if as the result of legal representation a child with a disability obtains an education that enables him or her to live up to their potential.
This is a growing sub-specialty of education law and the number of children diagnosed with disabilities is increasing. An estimated 2.8 million children in the United States are disabled as of 2010 according to the U.S. Census Bureau and there about 686,000 students with disabilities receiving special education services in California, which is about 10% of the student population, according to a 2013 Legislative Analyst’s Office report.
Special education programs were made mandatory in 1975 when the Congress passed the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA), which was passed in response to discrimination against children with disabilities by public education agencies. The EAHCA was later amended and strengthened student protections and renamed the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). In order to obtain federal funds states are required to provide special education and related services consistent with federal standards.
The IDEA provides a framework for a “free and appropriate public education” to students with disabilities. This federal statute, and related regulations and state statutes, are supposed to ensure that children with disabilities receive the same education as their non-disabled peers. Individualized Education Programs (IEP’s, educational programs tailored to meet a disabled child’s needs) are often established to plan out a disabled child’s education so he or she obtains a public education that is free, appropriate and in the least restrictive environment possible.
If a school system is not willing or able to provide a free and appropriate public education for a disabled student, that student should be outplaced to a school designed for special education students. Over the educational career of a student such a placement could cost a school district hundreds of thousands of dollars, so the stakes can be high for both the student and school system.
Attorneys working in special education law counsel families and school districts and represent parties in proceedings from relatively simple meetings and hearings to complex litigation and appeals in state and federal courts. Attorneys represent parties at meetings where IEP’s are drafted by parents, the student, school psychologists, teachers and school administrators. If a parent disagrees with an IEP’s plan, it can be subject to mediation or an administrative hearing to determine if the student’s rights to a free and appropriate education are being denied without due process. That decision could be subject to an appeal to the court system.
An attorney working in special education will not only need to know about the substance of the law and legal proceedings, but be well versed in the disabilities affecting the student, how it impacts his or her ability to learn and how a school can address those limitations.