What is an IEP?

An Individualized Education Program (IEP) is a plan that determines the special education services, supports and accommodations that a student with special needs will receive to ensure the best possible education at school.

Who is eligible for an IEP?

Schools will conduct thorough evaluations of a student to determine if he is eligible for special education services. These assessments will include testing, observation, as well as reports from parents and teachers, and will be used by the school district to decide if extra supports are required to meet your child’s educational needs.

If it is determined that your child is eligible for special education services, a meeting will take place to develop an initial IEP that lays out what those services will be.

Some Legal Background

Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), your child is entitled to a “free appropriate public education” in the “least restrictive environment.”

A “free appropriate public education” may include:

  • placement in a mainstream and/or special education classroom at a public school with appropriate modifications or accommodations to meet a child’s specific needs;
  • placement at a private school (at public expense, if your school district cannot provide an appropriate placement in a public school); and/or
  • the provision of related services (such as speech, occupational therapy, physical therapy, counseling services, mobility services and/or transportation).

The “least restrictive environment” requirement is to ensure that a child is not unnecessarily put in isolation or removed from his peers. Under IDEA, he must be integrated into mainstream classroom environments (with appropriate supports and accommodations) as much as possible.

Generally, the IEP process is intended to allow you and the school district to determine what a “free appropriate public education” in the “least restrictive environment” means for your child.

Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District Supreme Court Decision

In May 2017, a landmark Supreme Court decision changed the way the government defines a “free appropriate public education.”

The case of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District sought to determine what level of progress should be the goal of the supports the schools are required to provide students with special needs. The case began with a boy with autism, Drew, whose parents felt he was making no progress in school and that under IDEA, he was entitled to an “equal opportunity” to achieve success like his classmates. The school district, however, argued that the boy only had the right to a de minimis, or minimal, benefit from the IEP.

The Court held that, “to meet its substantive obligation under the IDEA, a school must offer an IEP reasonably calculated to enable a child to make progress appropriate in light of the child’s circumstances.” In so doing, the Court rejected the idea that students with special needs – including those with the greatest needs – are only entitled to services designed to help them achieve the bare minimum amount of progress.

The Endrew F. Supreme Court decision made clear that a student’s IEP goals "must be appropriately ambitious in light of his circumstances, just as advancement from grade to grade is appropriately ambitious for most children in the regular classroom…. The goals may differ, but every child should have the chance to meet challenging objectives.”

Next Section: Getting an IEP