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Arkansas State University

Laws Special Education Teachers Need to Know

Special education teachers must abide by special education laws that do not always apply to the general student population. Districts may also have their own guidelines for certain practices, but they all must follow specific federal special education laws. A master’s degree in special education can help you understand all of these laws and how they affect students in your school.


In 2004, the federal government set forth the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) to ensure basic rights for children with disabilities. IDEA requires all special education students to participate in state testing; IDEA also holds special education teachers to higher standards. IDEA guarantees four basic rights to children with disabilities:

  • Free public education for children with disabilities at no cost to the parents.
  • The least restrictive environment for children with disabilities, so that they will be in classrooms with children who do not have disabilities whenever possible.
  • Supplementary support from special education teachers when necessary.
  • An assessment, with parental consent, to determine the child’s needs.

All states must follow the minimum requirements of IDEA, but they are free to set more stringent state laws that offer even greater protection for special education students.

To ensure that districts adhere to IDEA requirements, schools develop Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) for each child with special education needs. IEP meetings occur annually and must include a school administrator, a general education teacher, a special education teacher, anyone else who has assessed the child, and the parents or legal guardians.

As a special education teacher, it can be your responsibility to understand how your school implements IDEA. A master’s degree in special education can help you understand these laws so you can better implement them in your school.

Section 504

Another special education law is Section 504 of the Americans with Disabilities Act. This law stipulates that students with disabilities must have the same access to education as other children. Section 504 specifically applies to students who have a disability that hinders major life functions including walking, breathing, seeing, hearing, speaking, learning and working.

For example, a student with a broken hand could be eligible for Section 504 accommodations if the injury affects the student’s dominant hand. The student is still capable of completing classwork but needs accommodations to level the playing field. Once the student’s hand has healed, the individual will likely no longer need those accommodations.


The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) restricts access to a student’s record, from behavior to grades, except for people who directly work with the student. Parents can look at, amend and control the information in their child’s cumulative folder while their student is in school. Teachers who work directly with that student have access to those files, but they are prohibited from disclosing information, such as grades or testing, to anyone else who is not on a “need-to-know” list for that student. Violating FERPA could lead to disciplinary actions.

Laws can feel intimidating, but they protect students with disabilities and uphold their educational rights. Understanding these laws can help prevent you and fellow teachers from violating students’ rights.

Learn about the Arkansas State University online MSE in Special Education — Instructional Specialist program.


Understanding IEP Law and Special Education

U.S. Department of Education: Family Policy Compliance Office

U.S. Department of Education: Building the Legacy: IDEA 2004

U.S. Department of Education: Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act

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