In many IEP meetings one of the school system staff members is introduced as “the LEA” without further explanation. If there is a lot of discussion and debate around an issue, it will often appear that this LEA has more influence than most other members of the IEP team. This may not seem fair to parents, who usually are outnumbered in the first place. However, it is important to understand that the LEA Representative does have a unique role in the IEP process.
First, let’s clear up some education jargon. LEA is short for Local Education Agency. Each individual school system that has a central administrator, usually known as the Superintendent, and School Board is actually a distinct LEA. Some LEAs are county-wide, some just cover a particular city, and some are public charter schools. Charter schools will typically have a Board of Directors rather than an elected School Board, and their central administrators have a variety of job titles, such as Headmaster, Dean or Principal.
IEP teams are required to include someone who can represent the LEA. The person who serves in the role of LEA Representative must meet certain criteria:
- Be qualified to provide, or supervise the provision of special education instruction;
- Be knowledgeable about the general education curriculum; and
- Have knowledge of the resources available to that LEA.
Every student with a disability who qualifies for special education services must be provided with a free appropriate public education (FAPE). It is the LEA (school system) that has the responsibility for delivering FAPE to its students. It is also the LEA that is held accountable when that does not happen.
To a large extent, the contents of an IEP define what FAPE looks like for that particular student. This makes the decisions of the IEP team extremely important and legally binding. IEP team decisions are expected to be based on data and the input of every member of the team. Most of the time IEP teams are eventually able to reach decisions that everyone can live with. That’s called reaching a consensus. If the team fails to reach consensus about a relatively minor issue, the matter may be put on hold until more information can be gathered.
When the IEP team cannot come to agreement about a really important proposal, the LEA Representative has the authority to make the decision. This allows the team to move forward with finalizing the IEP so that the student can be served. Having a clear decision also gives the parent the right to formally challenge that decision through one of the options available for resolving special education disputes. Those options are detailed in the Procedural Safeguards Notice* that is often referred to as the “Parent Rights Handbook.” Parents should be given a copy of the handbook at least once each year, but they can ask for a copy at any time.
In rare cases, individuals who serve as the LEA Representative over-use their decision making authority and the IEP team is not able to function properly. If this happens, a higher-level special education administrator should be notified so that corrective action can be taken.
What is the difference between “placement” and “assignment” when it comes to students who have disabilities? This topic should actually fall under the heading of: Questions parents don’t ask because they don’t know what they don’t know.
“Placement” and “assignment” are often used as though they mean the same thing in conversations about the education of typical students. However, there are some very real differences in how these words are used when talking about students who receive special education services. There are also big differences in how decisions about placement and assignment are made.
Special education placement describes the type and amount of special education and related services a student receives based on their Individualized Education Program (IEP). The IEP will also describe the location where the services will be delivered. The IEP will state whether the services will be provided within the general education setting, special education setting, or the total school environment. The team of people who create each student’s IEP includes the child’s parent(s), a general education teacher, a special education teacher, and someone who can represent the local education agency (LEA) or school system. The IEP team can include other individuals, depending on what is being discussed or when invited by the parent or school.
Students with disabilities must be educated alongside students who don’t have disabilities as much as possible, as long as their needs can be met. The IEP team has to explain why a student is removed from his non-disabled peers and why they cannot be adequately served in the general education setting, even with the use of supplemental aids and services. The least restrictive environment for each student must be determined based on the unique needs of that particular student and not factors such as age or type of disability.
Some students with disabilities stay in the general education setting all day long, some removed for a short time each day, and other students require a specialized environment for most of their day. There is a wide range, or continuum of alternative educational placements that the IEP team can consider. The amount of time that the student is removed from their non-disabled peers will determine whether their placement on the continuum is described as regular, resource, separate, separate school, residential, home/hospital, etc. The IEP team, including the parent(s), has full responsibility for deciding special education placement.
Educational assignment refers to administrative decisions that are made by people who have been given certain authority to make them, as well as the guidance of school board or other policies. For example, principals typically have the authority to assign students to specific teachers. In North Carolina, principals also have sole authority over each student’s grade assignment or classification, including promotion and retention decisions.
Most school systems have a written policy that details how students are assigned to particular schools. In addition to a “home” school based on the student’s address, there may be other school options that parents can apply for by following certain steps. There may even be an appeal process if the request to change schools is denied.
If the IEP team has decided that a student’s disability-related needs require a specialized setting at, or beyond, the “separate” level of service, that student will be administratively assigned to the school closest to home where his or her needs can be met. School system administrators can decide where to locate various specialized classrooms, and they can be moved from one school year to the next. In most cases, parents of these children will not have a choice about which school their child will be assigned. Parents also do not have a right to pick and choose their child’s teachers.
If there are special considerations that make the standard administrative process or the resulting decision, not appropriate for your child, find out who has the authority to do something different. That would be the contact point where you should focus your efforts to advocate for your child. Communicate with the decision maker(s) to help them better understand all of the issues involved. If necessary, reach out to the school board members and others who actually create the policies that everyone else has to follow.
The IEP team process gives parents a clear role in making decisions about special education placement decisions, but parents can sometimes influence administrative decisions as well. It is important to be clear about which decisions you are talking about.