Sunday, August 5, 2007

Special Education Vocab: FAPE

The law says that your school system is obligated to provide a student with disabilities with a FAPE – a free appropriate public education. Do you know what that MEANS?

Technical jargon can get in the way of understanding your child's rights.

What is a FAPE? The long list of technical terms in special education can be daunting to some parents. And since FAPE is one of the most basic terms, I thought I'd take a little time here to make sure you could find a clear, concise definition...

meThe Special Education Lawyers website has one of the best explanations of the term FAPE that I've come across on the Internet. Their page looks at each word individually and talks briefly about what it means for an education to be free, what it means for it to be appropriate, etc.

The concept of a FAPE comes from a court ruling in 1971. In the case Pennsylvania Association for Retarded Children v. the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, a federal judge ruled that retarded children had a right to a free public education under the "equal protection" clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution. The case affected students in Pennsylvania. But the next year a case in the District of Columbia, Mills v. the Board of Education, made the concept of FAPE binding on all schools in the U.S.

To catch up with the courts, Congress passed a number of laws over the next few years. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, along with the Education for All Handicapped Children Act (EAHCA) in 1975 were the most important. EAHCA was reauthorized in 1990 as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

The concepts involved in FAPE are fairly straightforward. Education should be free - from transportation back and forth to school to the cost of textbooks, if it is essential to education it should not cost the student (or the student's guardians) anything. Education should be appropriate; this idea is harder to define and is usually the point of contention when disagreement occurs between a child's family and a school system. And education should be offered by a public agency (a government run school system).

What is (and is not) appropriate is a changing concept because education is a growing academic field and because values change with time.
  • Fifty years ago, for example, sex education would probably not have been considered appropriate for many students; but our values have changed.
  • Twenty-five years ago it might have been consider appropriate to "guide" students with disabilities into academic paths or tracks that focused on trade skills like auto mechanics; but changes in our values and in the economy have broadened the academic and career choices for many disabled students.
  • And advances in our understanding of how children learn regularly require that we re-evaluate the methods we use to teach all children.
What is appropriate changes with time. But all students with disabilities in America have a right to a free appropriate public education - FAPE.

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