What Is Free Appropriate Public Education?

Know Your Rights as a Parent

Teacher teaching math to students in classroom
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If you want to know more about FAPE, it helps to have an appetite for alphabet soup.FAPE stands for Free Appropriate Public Education is what all children in the U.S. are entitled to under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). There is some degree of interpretation regarding the meaning of "appropriate," however, and the interpretations school districts and parents bring to that word may vary widely.

At one end of the spectrum are parents who take issue with "appropriate" not meaning "best." At the other end are administrators who feel that "appropriate" should mean "appropriate to the school district's plans for this year."

The law requires that this FAPE take place in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), also a slippery concept. For some kids, this will mean full inclusion; for other kids, a self-contained classroom may in fact be less restrictive and more appropriate. The important points for parents are that "appropriate" is the appropriate word to use when asking for services, and that all these interpretations must be individualized to the needs of the child, not the needs of the school or the needs of the district or the needs of the Ivy League college you've dreamed your child might go to.

The F, P, and E parts of FAPE are also important. "Free" and "public" means your child has as much right to attend a public school at the taxpayers' expense as any other child in your neighborhood.

In the interests of true inclusion, that would actually take place at your neighborhood school. But some children, and some school districts are not the best matches. For kids who need services that can't be provided by their neighborhood school, the district may a different school in mind. They will have to pay to transport your child there.

If a specialized school out-of-district is chosen as the most appropriate place, they'll have to pay for that, too. The education is still free whether your district is up to the challenge of giving your child a public education or not. Mind you, it's not a free ride: You will be responsible for any fees for groups or trips that the rest of the class is responsible for.

Don't take the "education" piece for granted, either. Your child isn't going to school for babysitting or warehousing: Your child is going to school to learn. You may hear a lot about how much or even whether your child has the ability to learn, and whether certain academic work is "appropriate." You may have your own doubts, but it's not your job to know how to teach academics to your child—it's the school's. They're supposed to be trained for this. Don't let them deny your child every bit of that FAPE.

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