4 Special education laws and policies every teacher should know

According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), there are about seven million students age 3 to 21 receiving special education services in the U.S. — 14 percent of all public school students. Because special education students have distinct needs, they rely on a teaching environment that’s tailored to them. With that in mind, our nation’s schools have evolved over the years to refine their approaches to educating special needs students.

One notable change has been the shift toward a more inclusive classroom structure that allows such students to learn in the general education environment alongside their peers. This means it isn’t just special education teachers who need to be well-versed in the laws and regulations that impact students with special needs — all teachers should have a solid understanding of special education laws and policies.

To help get you up to speed, we’ve outlined four laws that have worked to preserve special needs students’ educational rights.

4 Special education laws that helped shaped the U.S. school system

Familiarizing yourself with these laws can help you gain a better understanding of how special education has progressed over time.

1. The Education for All Handicapped Children Act

Originally passed in 1975, the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EHA) — frequently referred to as Public Law 94-142 — requires that all public schools accepting federal funds must provide equal access to education for children with physical and/or mental disabilities. This paved the way for special education as we know it today. Prior to 1975, only a few small districts provided education for students with disabilities in the U.S. To receive federal funding for special education today, states must comply with the law.

In addition to providing equal access to special needs students, the EHA made it mandatory for public schools to evaluate children with disabilities and create individualized educational plans that would closely emulate the educational experiences of non-disabled students while still accommodating their unique needs. Essentially, the EHA was enacted to meet four key goals:

  • To ensure that special education services are available to children who need them
  • To guarantee that decisions about services to students with disabilities are fair and appropriate
  • To establish specific management and auditing requirements for special education
  • To provide federal funds to help states educate students with disabilities

2. The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act

What was known as the EHA eventually became the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) in 1990. The following six pillars are what IDEA ensures:

  • Public schools are required to create an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for each student who is found to be eligible for special education services. IEPs must be designed to meet the unique educational needs of that child in the least restrictive environment appropriate.


  • To the maximum extent appropriate, IDEA ensures that all students are given the opportunity to learn in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) – an inclusive classroom environment in which a special needs student can achieve the most academic success.


  • Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) is an educational right that ensures education and related services are designed to meet handicapped persons’ individual needs as adequately as the needs of non-handicapped persons.


  • IDEA includes a set of procedural safeguards designed to protect the rights of children with disabilities and their families, and to ensure that all special-needs students receive a FAPE. The safeguards include the opportunity for parents to review their child’s full educational records, the right of parents to request an independent educational evaluation and more.


  • IDEA ensures the use of appropriate evaluation processes. This minimizes the number of misidentifications, provides a variety of assessment tools and strategies, prohibits the use of any single evaluation as the sole criterion and provides protections against evaluation measures that are racially or culturally discriminatory.


  • Cross collaboration is key for a student to receive the education necessary for success. IDEA enables parents, teachers, school psychologists and other relevant parties to work in tandem when developing IEPs, determining the proper LRE and discussing other important considerations for each student.

Simply put, IDEA replaced EHA to place more focus on the individual learner, as opposed to the condition that individual may have.

3. The Assistive Technology Act

Originally instated in 1998, the Assistive Technology Act was reauthorized in 2004. It provides assistive technology to persons with disabilities so they can more fully participate in education, employment and daily activities on level playing fields with other people in their communities. Because technology plays an increasingly important role in our lives — from business functions to providing education — it impacts individuals with disabilities no less than the remainder of U.S. citizens.

Under the law, each U.S. state receives a grant to fund Assistive Technology Act Programs (ATAP) that provide services to persons with disabilities for their entire lives. The 56 ATAPs created under the law provide a place where users can go for product demonstrations, low-cost loans for their purchases and information on these products.

The Assistive Technology Act of 2004 set forth a core set of program services to increase consistency across the country. As a result, at least 60 percent of the funds each state’s assistive technology program receives must support the following:

  • State financing activities
  • Device reutilization programs
  • Device loan programs
  • Device demonstration programs

4. The Handicapped Children’s Protection Act

While the EHA mandated that all public schools receiving financial support from the federal government provide special-needs students with nondiscriminatory access to all educational programs, the Handicapped Children’s Protection Act (HCPA) of 1986 was created to instate provisions not covered by the EHA. For example, the EHA does not directly address legal cost relief available for parents who prevail in lawsuits based on violations of EHA provisions.

The HCPA came to be after the United States Supreme Court’s ruling in the 1984 case Smith v. Robinson. It was found that existing enforcement mechanisms of disability rights did not cover how, when and/or where legal costs are to be resolved.

The HCPA amended the EHA to authorize the award of reasonable attorneys’ fees, expenses and costs to the parents or guardian of a handicapped child or youth who is the prevailing party in a civil suit to protect the child’s right to FAPE.

Protect the dignity of students with disabilities

As you review some of the core special education laws that have shaped how we accommodate special needs students, you may find yourself eager to get involved. Whether you already have some classroom experience under your belt or you’re just starting out, it’s possible you’re now trying to decide if you have what it takes to be a special education teacher.

If so, there’s no better time to explore the field — our nation’s teacher shortage has hit special education particularly hard. To help you determine if you’re a good fit for this type of teaching position, it’s worth looking into the most sought-after traits employers look for in qualified special education teachers. Learn more by heading over to our article, “5 Signs you’d excel in educating special needs students.



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