What is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)?

By Andrew M.I. Lee, JD

At a glance

  • IDEA is the nation’s special education law.

  • Schools must find and evaluate students thought to have disabilities — at no cost to families.

  • To qualify for IDEA services, a child must have a disability and need special education to make progress in school.

To get special education services for a child, you have to follow a legal process. The most important law for this process is the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). 

IDEA is the nation’s special education law. It gives rights and protections to kids with disabilities. It covers them from birth through high school graduation or age 21 (whichever comes first). Parents and legal guardians also have rights under the law. 

IDEA places two big responsibilities on states and their public schools.

First, school districts must provide a free appropriate public education (FAPE) to kids with disabilities. And these kids must learn side by side with peers as much as possible — something called the least restrictive environment, or LRE.

Schools must find and evaluate students who may have disabilities, at no cost to families. This is known as Child Find. If a child has a qualifying disability, schools must offer special education and related services (like speech therapy and counseling) to meet the child’s unique needs. These are provided through an Individualized Education Program (IEP). The goal is to help students make progress in school.

Second, schools have to give parents a voice in their child’s education. At every point in the process, IDEA gives parents specific rights and protections. These are called procedural safeguards. For example, one safeguard is that a school must get consent from parents before providing services to kids.

The reach of IDEA goes beyond traditional public schools. It includes public magnet and charter schools. The law also provides early intervention services to infants and toddlers up to age 3. Finally, IDEA may impact some students in private schools.

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    About the author

    About the author

    Andrew M.I. Lee, JD is an editor and attorney who strives to help people understand complex legal, education, and parenting issues.

    Reviewed by

    Reviewed by

    Myrna Mandlawitz, MEd, JD has worked for over 20 years as a consultant/lobbyist on special and general education.