FAPE Checklist for Special Education Leaders

The requirement of a free, appropriate public education (FAPE) in US legislation has existed in some form for over half a century, and it was first explicitly referred to in the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975, the predecessor to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). Over time, with the re-verification of IDEA and the rulings of several landmark cases, FAPE gained greater definition and was further tested by the COVID-19 pandemic and the necessity for distance learning.

In this article, we will unpack the meaning of FAPE in the context of special education, we will review the historical and more recent developments in special education law in relation to FAPE, and we will provide a practical summary of key recommendations in the form of a FAPE checklist showing how schools and districts should navigate FAPE requirements under IDEA to ensure compliance.

Definition of key terms of FAPE

The terms of FAPE are, for the most part, unambiguous. We know that “free” means that the education and services provided to the person with a disability must be funded by the federal government at no additional cost to the beneficiary of the education, and that the recipients of these funds include public school districts, higher education institutions and other state and local agencies (hence “public”).

However, the same cannot be said for the term “appropriate”. This is largely because the U.S. Congress chose not to formally define it in legislation, but instead “established a baseline mechanism, a written document called the individualized education program (IEP)” (Stafford, 1978) which could serve as the blueprint of FAPE for eligible students.

The IEP, for its part, needs to meet the standard of enabling the child to achieve “meaningful educational progress”—a term which was coined in the context of the Supreme Court case of Board of Education of Hendrick Hudson Central School District v. Rowley (1982) to signify going above and beyond what is considered the bare minimum (or “de minimis”)—in order to be considered in compliance with IDEA.

Consequently, in the case of a suspected violation of FAPE as provided by a special education student’s IEP, it is possible to request a review by an impartial due process hearing officer in order to determine whether the education and provisions were indeed “appropriate”. In such legal proceedings, the IEP would serve as “the primary basis for determining if a school district delivered a FAPE” to the student in question (Yell, Conroy, and Katsiyannis, 2016).

The lack of official language in legal documents to support the idea of appropriateness, both in IDEA and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, would help explain the prevalence of FAPE-related disputes, the most important of which are the aforementioned Rowley (1982) case and the Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District (2017), or simply the Endrew F. (2017) case.

Historical landmarks and developments in FAPE legislation

Despite the aforementioned reticence to codify FAPE in special education law, opting instead to define it in terms of a student’s IEP, the passing of subsequent legislation and the filing of case disputes on substantive issues relating to IEPs have played an important part in shaping, scoping and defining FAPE in practice. The overall trajectory over the course of 50 years underscores a growing emphasis on quality and tailored educational outcomes for students with disabilities.

Starting in 1975, FAPE was introduced to ensure education for children with disabilities. Subsequent Supreme Court decisions, particularly in 1982 and 2017, refined this mandate to emphasize not just access but also meaningful educational benefits tailored to individual needs. Legislative enhancements through the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 and updates to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act in 1997 and 2004 ensured broader accessibility and more detailed educational plans. 

Below is a more detailed timeline of the most significant legislative milestones concerning the development of FAPE requirements in the last 50 years.

  • In 1973, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was the first piece of legislation passed which recognized the rights of special education students, prohibiting discrimination based on disability in programs receiving federal financial assistance, including public schools. 
  • In 1975, the terms “free” and “appropriate” were used for the first time in the Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975—the predecessor to IDEA—and was stated in the following terms: “the State involved shall use such funds to assure the provision of a free appropriate education to handicapped children” (Education for All Handicapped Children Act of 1975).
  • In 1982, the Supreme Court case of Rowley (1982) provided further clarification on what FAPE in special education entails, ruling that students with disabilities must receive “some educational benefit” (Board of Educ. v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176, 1982), but fell short of guaranteeing the maximum possible benefit.
  • In 1990, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed and required accommodations for individuals with disabilities in all public spaces, which includes schools. This included modifications to policies and practices to ensure equal access to education.
  • In 1997, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) was reauthorized and included provisions for transition services for students aged 16 and older, as well as requirements for IEPs to include measurable annual goals that address academic and functional needs.
  • In 2004, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA) was passed, providing greater clarity on FAPE by requiring that students with disabilities have access to the general education curriculum, accommodations and modifications, and individualized services written into their IEPs.
  • In 2017, the Supreme Court case of Endrew F. (2017) further defined FAPE by ruling that students with disabilities must receive “an educational program reasonably calculated to enable [them] to make progress in light of their circumstances” (Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District, 2017).
  • In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic tested school districts in their readiness to ensurе educational equity and the continuing of ongoing provision of special education services mandated by federal law under IDEA and ADA during the worldwide disruption caused by the pandemic and ensuing stay-at-home mandates.
Ensuring Educationally Meaningful and Legally Compliant Transition Plans - webinar title on a salmon pink background with headshots of Dr. Yell and Dr. Hulett.

FAPE checklist with expert recommendations

In order for teachers and educators to meet FAPE requirements under IDEA, they need to be skilled in developing reasonably calculated IEPs which enable students to make appropriate, meaningful progress as set by the new, higher standard of Endrew F. (2017), which goes beyond merely the aforementioned de minimis requirement.

Rozalski, Yell, and Warner (2021) created a list of six recommendations which special educators should take into account for IEP and IDEA compliance purposes, with specific guidance for teacher training admnistrators. We have provided a summary of the recommendations below along with a FAPE checklist for easy reference.

  1. Improve the legal literacy of special education teachers

Teachers need to be well-versed in the legal frameworks governing special education rights and responsibilities to ensure that they adhere to all relevant laws and regulations. This includes understanding IDEA and other pertinent legislation and staying up-to-date on any changes or new policies. Legal literacy helps teachers know their obligations under IDEA and avoid unintentional violations of students’ rights, and it also ensures they can advocate effectively for their students.

Teacher preparation programs should therefore provide resources for continuous legal education and consider including extensive coursework that covers special education law in depth.

  1. Prepare general educators to teach students with disabilities

General educators, not just special educators, must be equipped to teach students with disabilities effectively. This includes training in special education strategies, understanding the IEP process, and knowing how to implement accommodations and modifications. Given that many students with disabilities spend a significant amount of time in general education classrooms, it is crucial that all teachers are prepared to support these students’ learning needs. 

Teacher preparation programs should integrate special education content throughout their curriculum to ensure general educators are competent and confident in their ability to teach students of all abilities.

  1. Prepare teachers to involve stakeholders in programming decisions

Involving parents, guardians or caregivers in the special education process is not only a legal requirement but also essential for the success of students. Special education teachers should be able to meaningfully engage these stakeholders in the development and implementation of a student’s IEP by strengthening their responsibility and role in the process.

Teacher preparation programs should contain training for developing effective communication and collaboration strategies. These include understanding others’ perspectives, informing and actively involving others in decision-making, and creating a welcoming environment for external input.

  1. Prepare teachers to understand, administer and interpret relevant and meaningful assessments

Accurate and comprehensive assessments are the foundation of effective special education programming. Teachers need to be proficient in administering a variety of assessment tools, interpreting the results, and using this information to develop individualized and appropriate IEPs.

Teacher preparation programs should offer in-depth training on alternate assessment techniques for both academic and functional assessments and ensure that preservice teachers have ample opportunities to practice these skills.

  1. Prepare teachers to understand and develop measurable annual goals

Developing measurable annual goals is required for tracking student progress and ensuring that special education programs are truly effective. Teachers should learn how to set specific, ambitious, and realistic goals that address each student’s unique needs. These goals should be clear and measurable, providing a way to monitor progress and make necessary adjustments. The data from a student’s present levels of achievement should be used as a baseline against which to measure progress towards these goals.

Teacher preparation programs should focus on teaching the principles of SMART goal-setting, as well as how to use data from a student’s present levels of achievement to inform goal development and measure progress towards achieving these goals.

  1. Prepare teachers to collect, understand and handle progress monitoring data

Regular progress monitoring allows special educators to determine if students are making appropriate gains towards their IEP goals. Teachers must be skilled in collecting and analyzing data, interpreting the results, and making informed decisions about instructional changes. This data-driven approach ensures that the teaching is effective and responsive to students’ needs.

Teacher preparation programs should train preservice teachers in using progress monitoring tools and techniques, emphasizing the importance of ongoing assessment and data use in instructional planning.

More on FAPE in special education

The three main components of FAPE in special education are: 

  • Free: education and services must be free of cost to the beneficiary
  • Appropriate: they must be tailored and appropriate to the student’s needs through an IEP
  • Public: they must be provided by public education agencies.

An IEP, or Individualized Education Program, is a written document that outlines tailored educational plans for students with disabilities. It serves as the blueprint for ensuring that the education provided meets the FAPE requirements.

Key acts include Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act (1973), the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (1975), the Americans with Disabilities Act (1990), and updates to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (1997, 2004).

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Navigating FAPE requirements in IEPs: Next steps

The concept of a free, appropriate public education remains central to ensuring that students with disabilities benefit from the same education as their able-bodied peers. From its early legislative mentions in the 1970s to the more defined parameters set by landmark Supreme Court cases, the evolution of FAPE has been geared toward enhancing educational quality and inclusivity.

The historical analysis highlighted significant milestones that have shaped the FAPE landscape. Notable court cases such as Rowley (1982) and Endrew F. (2017) have played significant roles in clarifying the standards that define “appropriate” education, moving from a minimal benefit to one that requires meaningful progress based on the child’s potential.

The expert recommendations, on the other hand, underscore the necessity for continuous improvement in the skills and knowledge of educators. This involves a robust understanding of legal frameworks, inclusive teaching practices, stakeholder involvement, to name a few. These elements are crucial for developing IEPs that not only comply with legal standards but also genuinely enhance the outcomes of students with disabilities.

With Ori Learning’s transition curriculum, your school or district can enjoy the peace of mind of having access to an easy-to-implement, comprehensive program that allows you to report on progress and demonstrate compliance. Find out how our curriculum can help you meet IEP goals safely and consistently by booking a call with one of our representatives today.

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Jon Izak

Jon Izak is the founder and CEO of Ori Learning.