Laws Impacting The Special Needs Student

Understanding the content and interplay between various federal, state, and local laws and policies can be critical in securing support for students with special needs.

IDEA (Individuals with Disabilities Education Act)

NCLB (No Child Left Behind)

California Education Codes

School District Policies



In order allow children with disabilities to have equality of opportunity to reach their highest potential, to become contributing members of society, and to live as independently as possible, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA) was passed.  Under this act, children with disabilities are entitled to a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE).


Assistance under the act comes in the form of school district special education and related services.  But because each child with challenges is different (even those with similar descriptions or diagnoses), what is "fair and appropriate" for one may not be "fair and appropriate" for another.


The determination of required services is achieved through a joint process involving families, educators, and other professionals as necessitated by the child's needs.  How and where services are provided may be influenced by the availability of school district resources, parent preferences, and whether the child is enrolled in public or private schools.



The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) is a separate law that can also be relevant to students with special needs, both from a policy and funding perspective.


NCLB provides for standards-based education reform which, in part, establishes measurable goals to improve individual outcomes in education.  Federal funding of state education programs is contingent on the states meeting certain educational standards.  The law requires, among other things, increased school accountability and options about where children attend school.  Moreover, the act addresses scientific-based research programs, teaching methods, and the quality and distribution of teachers.


NCLB has an effect on children with disabilities in that students with IEPs are included in assessment statistics along with the non-IEP students.  This provides incentives to reward schools showing progress for students with disabilities. 


There is an ongoing attempt to align NCLB and IDEA, particularly in 1) creating common requirements and standards for “Highly Qualified Teachers”, 2) establishing assessment levels for students with IEPs, and 3) specifying a goal structure for these students. 


While NCLB has some benefits for children with identified disabilities and IEPs, it provides fewer and different protections than IDEA.  It does, however, protect students with disabilities from discrimination, and may provide certain accommodations and modifications unavailable to nondisabled students.

California Education Codes


The state of California has a body of law related to education in general.  These laws govern the way education is delivered to all children in the state, including those with special needs. 


It important to understand that these laws integrate with, but do not supplant, IDEA.

School District Policies


Laws are drafted with certain goals in mind and embody principles which are often lofty, ambitious, and laudable.  But laws rarely incorporate the type of specificity that it takes to implement these principles on a day-to-day basis.  Because of this, school districts must create and adopt policies that address the practical delivery of education by schools, administrators, teachers, and other school employees.  With any policy, it is difficult to anticipate all circumstances that may arise, and this is particularly true with regard to the special needs of students with challenges.


Careful interpretation of school district policies is warranted to ensure these policies do not impact or abridge the rights of students or families under controlling statutes or laws.