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What is and isn’t covered under FAPE

By Andrew M.I. Lee, JD

At a Glance

  • FAPE stands for free appropriate public education.

  • The right to FAPE is a powerful legal right for kids with disabilities.

  • FAPE requires schools to provide special education to meet the unique needs of a child.

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Federal law guarantees the right to a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to kids with disabilities. That can include kids with learning and thinking differences. 

FAPE is a powerful legal right for students. Knowing what it covers can help parents and caregivers advocate for the services and supports their kids need. It can also help schools and families partner with each other.

The right to FAPE comes from the . Need the basics? Download a one-page summary of FAPE:

Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)

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Dive deeper

What FAPE requires a school to do

  • Provide special education to meet the unique needs of a child. This means specially designed instruction. For example, a student with reading challenges might be taught with a multisensory reading program.

  • Provide related services to help the child benefit from special education. Related services may include things like speech therapy, counseling, or even transportation.

  • Provide these services for free — at no cost to parents and caregivers.

  • Provide accommodations and modifications that help kids learn and participate in the general education curriculum. Audiobooks and extra time for schoolwork are examples of accommodations. See a list of common accommodations in the classroom .

  • Create an Individualized Education Program (IEP). This is a written plan for a child’s special education experience at school. By law, an IEP must include things like services, progress monitoring, annual goals, and more. 

  • Teach kids in the least restrictive environment  (LRE). As much as possible, kids with IEPs should be learning alongside their classmates. Putting kids in separate classes is only allowed if it’s necessary to meet their unique needs.

Wondering what it takes for kids to be eligible for an IEP? Learn about the IEP process .

What FAPE does not require a school to do

  • Provide the best services possible for kids, or “maximize” their potential. Instead, the law requires that schools provide services that are “reasonably calculated” to help a child make progress. 

  • Provide a specific program or class setting that a parent or caregiver wants for a child. Parents are members of the team that creates the IEP, and they can give input. However, FAPE doesn’t require schools to offer a specific educational program. The IEP team makes the final decision based on the needs of the child.

  • Guarantee a child a spot in an extracurricular activity or sport. FAPE isn’t a right to preferential treatment for clubs and sports . But the school must give kids an equal opportunity to participate.

Parents and caregivers: Download a toolkit to help you advocate for your child’s special education services under FAPE.

Disagreements over FAPE

At times, schools and families may disagree about what FAPE requires for a child. They might disagree about the type or amount of services. Or about accommodations or placement. When there’s a disagreement, it’s important to try to work together to find a solution.

Parents and caregivers: Use these tips for negotiating with the school about your child’s needs . It’s also important to know that IDEA gives you dispute resolution options .  

Educators: Keep in mind that state law may determine what services are required . Find out what to expect in an IEP meeting .

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