Free Appropriate Public Education

Background

I believe that the federal legislation that regulates special education in the US (IDEA 2004) can be best summarized into two major areas: the provision of FAPE and Procedural Safeguards.  This page will be looking at the former.   If you don't have a previous understanding of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004, I suggest you read up on that legislation after you've read what's available on this page.  While you're on the subject, maybe you should take a look at other legal issues in special education.

A Free Appropriate Public Education is the bedrock of our nation's special education principles.  It's importance cannot be overstated.  It is what guides our provision of special education and related services for students with exceptionalites.

To summarize briefly, FAPE is an assurance to parents that their child will receive an education (at no cost to them) which is suitable to their child's needs and allows that child the opportunity to make progress toward meeting the general education curriculum expectations.  But, let's break it down a little deeper, shall we?
  • Free
    • Requires that educational programs and services be offered to parents/students at no cost.  Schools cannot charge fees for special education programs.  (However, schools can charge fees for books, field trips, class photos, etc.)
  • Appropriate
    • Appropriate is determined by the Individualized Education Program and the IEP team.  The appropriateness of each child's special education plan is evaluated by that team.  What is appropriate for one child will not necessarily be appropriate for another child in the same setting or with similar exceptionalities.
  • Public
    • Requires that these services be available to the public, by the public.  Local boards of education (public education officials) are required to offer these services to any student within their community. 
    • Even if a child is enrolled in a private or parochial school, public special education services must be offered to that child.  (However, those special education services do not have to be provided at the private/parochial school; the school board may chose to offer those services only at the public school setting.  In such a case, free transportation to the public school must also be offered to the child from the private/parochial school in order to access those public school services.)
  • Education
    • The local school board and state department of education outline what "education" is required.  While the Common Core State Standards have attempted to make education standards more closely aligned from state-to-state, the local education agency is still ultimately responsible for providing education as they see fit.
Even after defining each word individually, an argument could still be made that FAPE is not a well-defined term.  I believe that's a valid argument. FAPE was designed to be both wide-reaching and somewhat ambiguous.  This allows local IEP teams and boards of education to determine what is best for students in their schools.

The Amy Rowley Case and its Impact Today

For school psychologists and administrators, the Amy Rowley case serves as a benchmark for training about issues of FAPE.  If you are not familiar with the case, follow this link for a brief review of the complaint and the decision.  It is the ruler by which schools and courts measure FAPE today.

In the Rowley case, the court's decision may best be summarized by two major findings.  These two principles continue to be used today when IEP teams consider FAPE for students.
  • IEP teams must consider whether the IEP is "reasonably calculated" to "provide education benefit" to the child. 
  • IEP teams must realize that the provision of FAPE is not designed to "maximize a child's potential", but instead only to provide the student with "a basic floor of opportunity" to make educational gains.  This is often hard for parents to understand; it's not easy to tell a parent that their child will not get "the best" education, but an "appropriate" one.

Schools today use one more benchmark by which they determine if FAPE has been provided.  Courts have regularly interpreted "provided education benefit" to mean whether or not the student advances from grade to grade, and/or receives good grades in school while doing so.  This is not necessarily law, but is used as a general guideline to determine if FAPE has been provided.  The logic is that as long as the student is making good grades and passing classes, then the student has been "provided educational benefit."

Further Reading

  1. Check out this page from the National Center for Learning Disabilities.  It gives a summary of FAPE and a good history of special education laws and history in the United States.
  2. You can also read this detailed analysis of the Rowley Case and decision from Wrightslaw.com.