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Special Education Law

For students with Down syndrome to get the best public education possible, it is crucial that administrators, educators and parents have a solid understanding of special education legislation and its underpinnings, both on the federal and state level.

To get started, see our overview below. At the bottom of the page, you will find additional resources to help you navigate the system to ensure that every student with Down syndrome gets the high quality education that she is entitled to and needs.

“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.”
~ Individuals with Disabilities Education Act 2004 (IDEA) Sec 1400 (c) (1)

Federal Law

  • Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
    On the federal level, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) is the statutory cornerstone for protecting the educational rights of children with disabilities. IDEA guarantees every child with a disability the right to receive a “free and appropriate education” (FAPE) and to be educated in the “least restrictive environment” (LRE). The special education and related services provided for each student must be defined by his/her unique needs and supported by an Individualized Education Program (IEP).
  1. Free and Appropriate Education (FAPE) obligates a school district to accord each student “meaningful access” to a public education. This education must allow all students to make meaningful and “effective progress” commensurate with their educational potential.
  2. Least Restrictive Environment (LRE) is the principle underpinning the rights of children to be educated alongside their non-disabled peers. LRE means that a child with a disability must be educated to the extent possible in the most integrated and least marginalized setting.
  3. Individual Education Program (IEP) is known as the “road map” for a public school education. Required for every public school student receiving special education services, it must be truly individualized to each child’s needs. By law, an IEP’s specially designed instruction and related services must be sufficient “to enable the student to progress effectively in the content areas of the general curriculum.” For more information, visit our IEP page, complete with a comprehensive list of Additional Resources.
  • Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (“Section 504”)
    The legal rights to a meaningful education for children with disabilities does not come from any single source. In addition to IDEA, another place to look is Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (“Section 504”), a provision of federal law that protects qualified individuals from discrimination based on their disability. Section 504 requires that school districts provide children with disabilities with services and assistance equal to that available to non-disabled students.
  • No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) & Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)
    Passed in 2001, the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) supplemented the landmark Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), originally passed in 1965. In its provisions for children with disabilities, NCLB/ESEA aligns closely with IDEA, bolstering the mandate that there be equity, accountability and excellence in education for children with disabilities. NCLB sets expectations for all students, regardless of their race, ethnicity, family background, or disability. ESEA is in the process of reauthorization.
  • Reauthorization of ESEA
    With ESEA in the process of reauthorization, the National Down Syndrome Society (NDSS) and the National Down Syndrome Congress (NDSC) have submitted recommendations that would ensure that students with disabilities are given full access to the general curriculum and that teachers are held accountable (PDF). For students with disabilities to receive the education they deserve, ESEA, IDEA and Section 504 must all work together.

Massachusetts' Special Education Law
States are entitled to provide rights in addition to those accorded under federal law. The amendments to Massachusetts’ special education law in 2000 brought Massachusetts generally in alignment with federal standards.

Important Links and Documents

Federation for Children with Special Needs
 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)
National Dissemination Center for Children with Disabilities (NICHCY)
 Massachusetts Special Education IEP Information
Wrightslaw IEP Frequetly Asked Questions
 A Parent’s Guide to Special Education (by FCSN & Mass. DESE)