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7 Things You Didn’t Know Were in IDEA

Updated: Jun 22, 2021

One of my favorite topics when delivering presentations for educators is about what is actually in the text of the law known as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

It has been my experience that educators are not that familiar with it, and since I love sharing information, I enjoy seeing the reactions of people as I read the text.

Like Dr. Jennifer Kurth said in a recent podcast episode, Congress did a pretty good job but, as educators, we need to know what the law says. So here are seven things you may not have known were in IDEA.

Special Education is a Service Not a Place

It is clear when you look at the text of the law that special education services were not meant to be delivered in a separate place. But that is exactly what the vast majority of schools do, especially for students with significant disabilities.

“Almost 30 years of research and experience has demonstrated that the education of children with disabilities can be made more effective by having high expectations … ensuring their access to the general education curriculum in the regular classroom … in order to ensure that such children benefit from such efforts and that special education [is] a service … rather than a place where such children are sent…” (20 U.S.C. § 1400(c)(5)).

All Students Must Be Provided a Free and Appropriate Public Education

IDEA guarantees that all learners, regardless of the severity of the disability, must be provided an education “appropriate to their unique needs at no cost” to the family (20 U.S.C. § 1412).

This was further clarified in the 2004 reauthorization: “to ensure that all children with disabilities have available to them a free, appropriate public education that emphasizes special education and related services designed to meet their unique needs and prepare them for further education, employment, and independent living” (34 C.F.R. § 300.1).

One Evaluation is Not Enough for Planning or Placement

Before placement, a learner should be evaluated by a multidisciplinary team in every area of suspected disability. Meaning that the team is made up of various professionals like teachers, psychologists, and therapists. And a single evaluation procedure is not permitted for either planning or placement purposes (U.S.C. § 1414(b)(2)(B)).

A General Education Teacher is Required on the IEP Team

An Individualized Education Program (IEP) is designed by a team that includes the parents or guardian, the child’s teachers (general education and special education), and a person representing the educational agency (34 C.F.R. § 300.321).

In many instances, school teams may want to waive the general education role for the meeting. This only reinforces the belief that students with disabilities are not general education students first.

IDEA Assumes the Student Makes Progress with the General Education Curriculum

Under IDEA, IEP goals are designed by the team to meet the child’s needs that result from the disability for two reasons (34 C.F.R. § 300.320):

  1. to enable the child to be involved in and make progress in the general education curriculum, and

  2. to meet each of the child’s other educational needs that result from the disability.

As an educator or family member, be wary of a school team that offers an alternative curriculum that is “developmental” or adapted. If adaptations are made, they should be aligned to the curriculum that all learners receive.

There is No Such Thing as a “Continuum of Services”

There is a false assumption that a continuum of services exists in the law and is akin to a menu of options for the team to consider. There is no reference to a “continuum of services” in IDEA. There is only the need to identify and describe the child’s services and who will deliver those services.

Each IEP identifies the special education services and support for school personnel needed for the learner to achieve their annual goals, make progress in the general education curriculum, and be educated alongside children with and without disabilities.

Students with disabilities, even those who take alternate assessments based on alternate achievement standards, are expected to have IEP goals aligned with their grade level curricula.

Each state must ensure that personnel are “appropriately and adequately prepared and trained and have the content knowledge and skills to serve children with disabilities” (34 C.F.R. § 300.156).

The Least Restrictive Environment is General Education

Another false assumption about the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) is that it exists on a spectrum or linear sliding scale where the learner can move back and forth depending on what the IEP team thinks is appropriate.

The starting point for all placement decisions begins with the team considering how the learner will participate in the general education with their nondisabled peers in the school the student would attend if they did not have a disability.

If the student will not participate in the general education setting or extracurricular activities, the IEP team must offer an explanation and justification of why it is necessary. IDEA instructs that students with disabilities should not be removed from regular classrooms solely because of the need for modifications to the general education curriculum.

The presumption is that “to the maximum extent appropriate, children with disabilities, … are educated with children who are not disabled, and that special classes, separate schooling, or other removal of children with disabilities from the regular educational environment occurs only when the nature or severity of the handicap is such that education in regular classes with the use of supplementary aids and services cannot be achieved satisfactorily” is the Least Restrictive Environment (20 U.S.C. § 1412(a)(5)(A)).


For more information about what is in IDEA and how it relates to inclusion and the least restrictive environment, get MCIE’s latest white paper on LRE placement decisions, Placement of Learners with Disabilities in the Least Restrictive Environment.

Send me the LRE White Paper!


Tim Villegas is the Director of Communications for MCIE, Editor-in-Chief of Think Inclusive, and the host of the Think Inclusive Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @TheRealTimVegas.

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