Special education is a vast and complex topic. After the challenges of COVID and parents having a front-row seat to their children’s education, many parents have questions. We asked Heidi Goldsmith, a special education lawyer and mom of two children with special needs, to help us answer some common questions.

PennEd Today: I believe my child has special needs that aren’t being met by his school. What should I do?

Heidi Goldsmith: Services for students with special needs are governed by two federal laws: the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA-2004) and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act. Both apply to public school entities (including intermediate units and charter schools). They do not apply to nonpublic schools.

The goal of these laws is to ensure students attending public schools received a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE). This means children with disabilities ages birth to 21 are entitled to a program designed to afford meaningful educational progress in all domains (academic, social, emotional, behavioral, physical). 

If you believe your child has special needs that aren’t being met, you can request an evaluation for your child from your school district. The evaluation must be completed within 60 days of the written request.

What happens in an evaluation?

A comprehensive evaluation may include cognitive and achievement testing, observations, parent input, teacher input, social/emotional/behavioral assessments, speech and language testing, and/or occupational therapy evaluations. 

The evaluator will prepare an Evaluation Report (ER) that must be sufficiently comprehensive to identify the student’s special education and related service needs. The ER will be provided to the parents.

I keep hearing about IEPs—what are they?

If the ER concludes the student is eligible for special education, the district is required to develop a program for the student within 30 days. An IEP, or Individualized Education Program, is a written statement for each child with a disability that is developed, reviewed, and revised in a meeting with parents and relevant professionals. The main components of an IEP are:

  • Present education levels
  • Transition services—ages 14 and up
  • Annual goals
    • Short-term objectives required for students with ID
  • Specially designed instruction (SDI)
  • Related services
  • Extended school year services

What if my district says my child is not eligible for services?

If the ER concludes the student is not eligible, the district is required to issue a Notice of Recommended Educational Placement (NOREP). Parents can challenge the district’s finding by rejecting the NOREP and filing for due process or request an Independent Educational Evaluation.

I’ve decided to file for due process. Now what?

Due process hearings are similar to trials (without a jury). There will be a Hearing Officer (HO) who presides over the hearing and acts as a judge to decide the dispute. An attorney will represent the educational agency. Parents can represent themselves or be represented by an attorney. Witnesses are questioned and cross-examined, and evidence is admitted into the record for the HO’s consideration. At the conclusion of the hearing, the HO issues a written decision, which is a legally enforceable document setting forth the legal obligations of all the parties.

We’ve barely scratched the surface when it comes to special education. For more information, visit the Parent Resource Library at the Pennsylvania Office for Dispute Resolution. If you have further questions, please contact us, and we can help connect you with experts.