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MS in Education Insight: What Does the Federal Law Say About Special Education?

In a required reading assignment, Walden University MSEd candidates explore the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and its mandates for teaching students with special needs.

When studying for a teaching career in special education, students in master’s in education and Master of Arts in Teaching degree programs must become well-acquainted with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the federal law that governs the educational rights of children with disabilities.

“Disability is a natural part of the human experience and in no way diminishes the right of individuals to participate in or contribute to society. Improving educational results for children with disabilities is an essential element of our national policy of ensuring equality of opportunity, full participation, independent living, and economic self-sufficiency for individuals with disabilities,” the law states.1

MS in Education Insight: What Does the Federal Law Say About Special Education?

At Walden University, students in the MSEd and MAT course Special Education: Honoring Due Process learn about this landmark piece of legislation in the article “Inclusion: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions from the NEA,” shared by P.W.D. Wright and P.D. Wright on their website Wrightslaw. Required reading in Week 6 of the course, the article addresses many of the questions educators have about the IDEA. The following excerpts illustrate the depth and breadth of what federal law says about special education:2

Q: Which, if any, of the following are permissible uses of IDEA funds: (a) professional development opportunities for educators (b) planning/release time for educators funding all or part of the salary of an additional classroom aide?

A: Determinations of whether the expenditures listed above would be permissible expenditures of IDEA funds must be made on a case-by-case basis. In general, the expenditures listed above could be permissible expenditures of IDEA funds if the school district responsible for the student’s education determines that they would be necessary for students to receive a free appropriate public education, or, if all eligible children are receiving a free appropriate public education, to meet other requirements of IDEA. In all instances, the expenditures must be reasonable for the proper and efficient administration of IDEA and must be expended with the cost principles applicable to the IDEA program. The expenditures must be included in the school district’s application for IDEA funds submitted to and approved by the state educational agency.

Q: What are the relationships between the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act? What, if any, practical implications do the differences in these laws have for educators?

A: The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) enforces five federal laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race or national origin, sex, disability, and age. Four of these laws apply specifically to recipients of federal financial assistance (the fifth applies to all activities of state and local governments, including those that do not receive federal financial assistance). While Section 504 applies to entities that receive or benefit from federal financial assistance, the ADA’s reach is broader. It extends Section 504’s prohibition against discrimination on the basis of disability to all activities of state and local governments, including those that do not receive federal financial assistance and therefore are not covered by Section 504. Since standards for compliance with the ADA are generally the same as those of Section 504, this has little practical consequence for public school districts, all of which are recipients of federal financial assistance. Generally, the same complaint procedures apply for Section 504 and Title II complaints.

Individuals with questions about Section 504 and Title II of the ADA should contact the relevant Office for Civil Rights (OCR) regional office or OCR contact person. Individuals with questions about the implementation of IDEA in your state should contact the state director of special education in your state Department of Education, or the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS) or Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP).

Q: Some educators have been told that federal law requires EITHER that necessary supports be provided for a child in a separate setting OR that the child be placed in a regular setting WITHOUT necessary support services. Is this interpretation of federal law correct? When a student switches from a special to a regular setting, does federal law require that necessary supports also be provided in the regular setting?

A: Federal law does not permit an either/or approach to placing a student with a disability in the least restrictive environment (LRE). If a school district determines that the Individualized Education Program (IEP) of a student who was placed in a separate facility could be implemented in the regular educational environment with appropriate aids and services, IDEA’s LRE provisions require that those aids and services must be provided. The entitlement of each disabled student to a free appropriate public education requires a school district to provide the student with the instruction and services reflected in that student’s IEP regardless of the setting in which that student is placed.

Q: How can educators report practices to the U.S. Department of Education which are believed to be out of compliance with the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act? Does the department place equal emphasis in its monitoring activities on inappropriate inclusion as it does on inappropriate non-inclusion?

A: Yes. In enforcing the free appropriate public education requirements of IDEA and Section 504, the department must ensure that states and school districts comply with their responsibilities to educate students with disabilities in the LRE in accordance with the requirements of those laws. If the department determines through monitoring or other compliance activities that these requirements are being misapplied, it will take whatever measures are deemed necessary to achieve compliance.

When OSEP monitors states’ compliance with the requirements of IDEA, OSEP will examine whether LRE requirements are being properly implemented at the local level. If OSEP identifies instances of inappropriate placement of students with disabilities in regular educational settings, OSEP will examine whether adequate appropriate aids and supports have been provided to the affected students in those settings.

There are mechanisms under IDEA, Section 504, and the ADA for individuals and organizations subject to the protections of those laws to file complaints alleging that school districts have not educated students with disabilities in the LRE. Because IDEA is a state-administered program, complaints by individuals or organizations alleging violations of IDEA are not investigated directly by OSEP or OSERS but are referred to the relevant state Department of Education for resolution. Individuals or organizations alleging discrimination on the basis of disability by a public school district in violation of Section 504 or Title II of the ADA may file a complaint with the relevant OCR regional office.

What Degree Programs Can Lead Me to a Career in Special Education?

Walden University’s Master of Science in Education (MSEd) online degree program offers a specialization in Special Education designed for teachers who want to learn to meet the educational requirements of students with special needs. As part of this innovative degree program, you’ll use a virtual interactive simulation called The Northgate School where you’ll have the chance to resolve real-life challenges you may face in your special education career.

The Master of Arts in Teaching (MAT) online degree program with a specialization in Special Education is designed for professionals holding bachelor’s degrees who wish to gain knowledge and experience to become an educator. This specialization emphasizes the strategies and skills needed to create positive, productive learning environments that focus on a broad range of exceptionalities.

Walden’s convenient and flexible learning platform can put an online teaching degree in special education within reach of working professionals like you. And with a degree in hand, you’ll be part of the diverse community of Walden University graduates making a difference in the lives of special needs students everywhere. Won’t you join them? Your career of passion and purpose awaits.

Walden University is an accredited institution offering an online MS in Education degree program with 17 specializations. Expand your career options and earn your degree in a convenient, flexible format that fits your busy life.

2Walden MSEd curriculum source:

Walden University is accredited by The Higher Learning Commission,