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Understanding your child’s legal rights to special education

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

What are my child’s rights to special education services, and what can I do if I have a problem? We’ll try to provide some quick answers here.

[For more detailed information, including fact sheets on many common questions, see the Education Law Center website, To order fact sheets from the Center, call (215)-238-6970.]

First, here’s a special announcement for parents whose children are in schools run by EMOs (or "education management organizations") – private companies or organizations such as Edison, Victory Schools, or Foundations. The fact that an EMO is managing your child’s school does not change your or your child’s legal rights.

Your child still has a right to be evaluated – and periodically re-evaluated – for special education, and, assuming he or she is eligible, to an appropriate Individualized Education Program (IEP) and placement. All of the procedures and timelines that apply in traditional public schools also apply in your school. This is also true of charter schools.

So what should you do if you have a problem with your child’s program or placement?

Start at the school, by talking to the teacher, counselor, and principal. If you’re uncertain about why your child is having problems, or what he or she really needs, you may want the school to do a re-evaluation. You could also have your child evaluated by someone outside the school system; this may have to be at your expense, but sometimes you can get the school to pay for it.

Either way, once you know what sorts of changes you want, you can ask for an IEP conference to discuss them. IEP conferences are usually held once a year, but you can have one anytime.

If this approach doesn’t work, here are some next steps.

If your child attends a regular public school managed by the School District, contact the Special Education Lead in the Regional Office. Your school can tell you how to reach this person.

If your school is run by an EMO, ask for the name and number of the EMO special education coordinator and contact that person. Charter schools usually also have a special education coordinator.

If your problem still isn’t solved, here are some more options:

  • If your school isn’t providing the services on your child’s IEP or isn’t responding to your requests for an evaluation or IEP conference, you can file a complaint with the state Department of Education. Call the Department’s CONSULT line at (800) 879-2301 to start this process.
  • If you believe that your child needs more or different services, try the Special Education Mediation Service. This state-run program will send a trained mediator to meet with you and school staff. The mediator won’t take sides or make a decision, but will try to broker an agreement. The program is quick, painless, and has a good track record; call (800) 222-3353.
  • You can request a "pre-hearing conference." This is basically a formal meeting, designed to try to avoid the need for a special education "hearing."
  • Finally, you have the right to a special education "due process hearing." This is a legal procedure in which a state-appointed hearing officer takes testimony about your concerns, hears from the school, and then makes a legally binding decision. It’s a formal procedure, and it requires preparation. Often, this includes finding an expert (such as a psychologist) who can testify about why the services your child is receiving aren’t appropriate. You may also want to hire a lawyer. Free legal services are sometimes available for income-eligible clients. Because the hearing process is more complex and time-consuming, it’s best to think of it as a last resort.

For further help, call the Education Law Center at (215) 238-6970, between 9 am and 1 pm. Because of the volume of calls, though, please check publications for help first.

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