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What IS Free & Appropriate Public Education For Your Child?


Have you ever heard the acronym “FAPE”? It stands for “Free and Appropriate Public Education.” If you're a parent of children with an IEP or 504 Plan, or think they might be in your future, then understanding this concept is key to making sure that your child receives an education that is appropriate for his or her unique needs.

QUICK History of Relevant Education Laws in the US

Many would argue that FAPE is one of the most important American educational laws, and it is particularly important for families whose children have IEPs. In 1975, the Education for ALL Handicapped Children Act (EHA) mandated FAPE, which ensured due process, Individual Education Programs (IEPs), and Least Restrictive Placements (LREs).

What does that mean in English? The law simply required local education leaders to provide academic services within the community, allowing disabled children to continue living with their families. Although children were provided access to schools within their districts, FAPE created two educational tracks—one for non-disabled children and a second for children with disabilities.

In 1990, the EHA law was reauthorized and renamed the “Individuals with Disabilities Education Act” (IDEA), which is the governing law in the US, today. It provides access to general education services for children with disabilities, encouraging that, as much as possible, support and related services should be provided to children in their general education settings.

FAPE is a critical component of the law governing your child's education, but it is also one of the most misunderstood concepts of law. The debate over what is FAPE for a child often causes the greatest conflict between parents and schools, and consequently becomes a frequent topic of due process hearings and other complaints.

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What is FAPE for Your Child?

So what is FAPE for your unique child? The answer: it depends! As an IEP is developed, your child's individual needs drive the details of what FAPE looks like for your child. The school system must meet the educational needs of students with disabilities to the same extent that the needs of non-disabled individuals are met. Under the IDEA, FAPE refers to providing regular or special education aids and services to achieve that goal.

FAPE is a component of the law that requires that:

  • school districts provide access to general education and specialized educational services
  • children with disabilities receive support free of charge as is provided to non-disabled students
  • support and related services be provided to children in their general education settings as much as possible

What is a Realistic Expectation for Parents?

Unrealistic expectations can be frustrating for parents. It is vital for parents to understand that IDEA is not an entitlement program. It is NOT designed to provide disabled children a better education than is provided to non-disabled students. The word “best” is a four-letter word that we cannot use as the standard for education.

FAPE does mean that your child is entitled to individualized programming, not a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter program. This factor is often overlooked in many IEPs.

What does FAPE mean to you and your child?

When you remember that the standard is “equal to,” and not better or worse than, then you will be on your way to understanding this core concept of the IDEA. To summarize:

FAPE is special education and related services that are provided

  • At public expense,
  • Under public supervision and direction, and
  • Without charge to the parent or guardian

FAPE means that children with disabilities can be charged for

  • Materials,
  • Student fees, and
  • Any other costs that are requested of general education students

*FAPE means that children with disabilities are provided with what they need for

  • Modifications,
  • Accommodations, and
  • Support services

The district must provide your child with a FAPE program that

  • Complies with IDEA's procedural requirements,
  • Addresses your child's unique needs (as identified by evaluations, observation and the IEP team), and
  • Is managed effectively so that your child can make adequate progress in the educational setting equal to that of non-disabled students

* FAPE modifications, accommodations, and support services allow children to have access to and benefit from instruction so they can meet the standards of the State Education Authority.

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