The Importance of the IEP to a Free and Appropriate Public Education

Earlier, we discussed a student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP), including how it should be drafted, who should be involved, how goals, objectives, and benchmarks should be set, and which direct services and related services could be identified as necessary. We also discussed different examples of related services which might be available. The ultimate goal of the IEP, and the provision of all special education services, is your student’s free and appropriate public education (also known as “FAPE”).

Under federal law, each state is required to provide a free and appropriate public education to every student with disabilities between the ages of three and twenty-one. FAPE is defined as “special education and related services” that (i) are provided at public expense; (ii) meet the state’s education standards; (iii) include an appropriate preschool, elementary, or secondary school education; and (iv) are provided in conformance with an IEP.

Courts have determined the requirement to provide FAPE does not mean the school has to provide the “best” program available, nor does it mean the school has to provide a program that will “maximize” a student’s potential. Instead, it means only that the program must provide a “basic floor of opportunity” which allows a “child to benefit educationally from instruction.”1 This minimal standard allows many school districts to argue a proposed program meets the requirements for a free and appropriate public education merely because a student will receive some benefit from the program, even if the student would receive greater benefit from a different placement.

The requirement that FAPE integrates the IEP, however, opens a door to making sure a student is placed in a program that provides more than just minimal benefits. As we know, an IEP must be individually tailored to a student’s unique needs, and must be calculated to provide the student with services that help achieve specific goals, objectives and benchmarks. Because of this, what is a free and appropriate public education for one student may be different than what it is for another. As a result, by making sure your student’s IEP contains a very detailed listing of the special education services to be provided, you can ensure your student is receiving a free and appropriate public education that is both unique to them and provides benefits greater than the minimum standard required by the courts.

If you have questions about whether your student is receiving a free and appropriate public education, or whether a school district is complying with an individualized education plan, contact me at or 413-570-3170.

1 Board of Education v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (1982).