What Goes Into an IEP?

In special education, it’s all about the IEP.  An IEP, or Individualized Education Program, is the legally enforceable document meant to ensure that a child is receiving an appropriate education.  It is to be carefully crafted, often evaluated, and closely followed.  When something goes wrong in creating the IEP, or when the IEP is not implemented, parents have the right to take action against the school district for failing to provide their child with a free and appropriate education.

But what does an IEP really say?  It turns out there are quite a few requirements for what goes into an IEP under federal law.  The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) defines an IEP as “a written statement for each child with a disability that is developed, reviewed, and revised in accordance with this section.”

In Section 1414(d)(1)(A), the statute also describes 8 main things that have to be included in an IEP:

  1. The child’s present levels of performance
  2. Measurable annual goals
  3. Descriptions of the child’s progress towards those goals
  4. The special education, related services, and supplementary aides the child needs
  5. The extent to which the child will not participate in general education activities
  6. Assessment accommodations or alternatives
  7. The date for beginning services along with the duration, frequency, and location
  8. Once the child is 16, post-secondary goals and transition services

Each state, and each school district, has some control over how their IEPs look.  Here is a blank copy of a New York City IEP.  Other states and districts might have very different looking IEPs, like this blank IEP from Florida, but the content is similar.

The IEP is filled out based on a meeting of the child’s IEP team.  The IDEA also covers who must be at an IEP meeting.  Under 1414(d)(3), the IEP team is required to consider a number of things when crafting the IEP, including recent evaluations, but also any parent concerns.

A statement of parent concerns is then included under the section with a child’s present level of performance, or PLOP.  This section is a powerful tool for parents who are advocating for their children!  Check out these great tips about writing a parent concern letter or parent IEP attachment.  When parents write a letter or insist that information be included in the IEP, they have a record of what they think their child needs, and evidence that they have been fighting for their child for a while.  Don’t be afraid to speak up!  It’s your right.

The Supreme Court has said that, the IEP is "the centerpiece of the [IDEA]'s education delivery system for disabled children."  When a piece of paper is so important, it’s good to know what’s in it!

Understanding IEP Classifications

Every child is unique and has unique learning needs.  Individual Education Programs (IEPs) are created to make sure that there is a plan for meeting the unique needs of each child.  But of course, using categories can help educators figure out how to approach each child’s learning needs.


Under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a “child with a disability” is defined as a child who falls into one of thirteen categories, and who, because they fall into that category, needs special education or related services.  Those categories include children with intellectual disabilities, hearing impairments, deafness, visual impairments (including blindness), deaf-blindness, speech or language impairments, emotional disturbance, orthopedic impairments, autism, traumatic brain injury, other health impairments, specific learning disabilities, or multiple disabilities. 

A child ages 3 through 9 could also qualify as “a child with a disability” if they experience developmental delays, including physical development, cognitive development, communication development, social or emotional development, or adaptive development.

According to the New York City Department of Education’s 2016-2017 Annual Report on Special Education, 39.8% of students with IEPs were classified with a specific learning disability, 30.9% with a speech or language impairment, 8.7% with autism, 8.4% with other health impairment, 5.6% with emotional disturbance, 3.5% with intellectual disability, 1.6% with multiple disabilities, 0.8% with hearing impairment,  0.3% with orthopedic impairment, 0.2% with visual impairment, and 0.1% with traumatic brain injury.  A very small number of students had a deaf-blindness or deafness classification.

That means that in New York City, specific learning disability and speech or language impairments are the most common disabilities, followed by autism and other health impairments.  But these are some confusing categories!  What do they mean?

Formally, a specific learning disability means “a disorder in one or more of the basic psychological processes involved in understanding or in using language, spoken or written, that may manifest itself in the imperfect ability to listen, think, speak, read, write, spell, or to do mathematical calculations.”  Often, students with this classification have dyslexia (which affects reading skills), dysgraphia (which affects writing skills), dyscalculia (which affects math skills), or other troubles with listening, speaking, or reasoning skills.  

The second most common category, speech or language impairment classification, officially means “a communication disorder, such as stuttering, impaired articulation, a language impairment, or a voice impairment, that adversely affects a child’s educational performance.”  Speech and language impairments are very common among 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds with disabilities.  Some common kinds of speech impairments affect articulation (like a lisp or distortion of a particular sound), fluency (like a stutter), or voice (this could be sounding nasal or raspy, causing pain or endurance issues).  Language expression issues might include trouble with expressing ideas, following directions, or using grammatical patterns or vocabulary.  Students with speech or language impairments may see a speech pathologist to practice speaking, or to learn how to use assistive technology to communicate.

Other health impairment” can be a confusing classification, since it covers so many different types of disabilities, from ADD to life-threatening diseases.  Officially, it includes students who have “limited strength, vitality, or alertness, including a heightened alertness to environmental stimuli, that results in limited alertness with respect to the educational environment, that— Is due to chronic or acute health problems such as asthma, attention deficit disorder or attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, diabetes, epilepsy, a heart condition, hemophilia, lead poisoning, leukemia, nephritis, rheumatic fever, sickle cell anemia, and Tourette syndrome.”  Students with this classification might have complex medical issues.  Teachers might need to educate themselves about a child’s condition, and work with others to modify the learning environment to make it both safe and non-restrictive.


The IDEA stipulates that a child is to be designated under only one category.  This can be difficult, as a child might sometimes fall into multiple categories.  Educators will often classify the child according to the disability that affects their learning the most.  There is also a classification for “multiple disabilities” to be used when the combination of different impairments means that the student’s needs cannot be served in programs for only one impairment.  For example, if a child has an intellectual disability and is blind, then a program with students that only have one of those disabilities would not do a good job of accommodating that student’s needs. 

You might be asking now, “how much does all this matter?”  Students are given a classification based on their evaluations.  As a student grows up and their disability changes, it is possible to be reclassified after an evaluation.  But some parents wonder how important that is.  Of course, if a child’s IEP is be tailored to their unique needs, like it’s supposed to be, then the child is getting the education they’re guaranteed!  But a child’s classification can open the door to different services or schools.  We don’t want a student with autism to miss out on services for students with autism because they were mislabeled with an emotional disturbance classification or a speech and language classification.

As parents, educators, and advocates, it’s important to educate ourselves about the IDEA disability classifications.  The more we know, the more we can make sure our students are getting the education they deserve!

Victory At Last For Endrew F.


Last March, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 8-0 decision in the case Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District heightened the standard of education that children with disabilities are entitled to receive.  We know that a student’s Individualized Education Program (IEP) must be tailored to a child’s unique needs, but that doesn’t tell us how much progress a child should be making in order to call an IEP adequate—an issue the Supreme Court addressed in Endrew F.

The previous standard was that a child needed to receive “some educational benefit.” Prior to Endrew F., this ambiguous language was interpreted differently by different circuit courts for decades.  When the 10th Circuit reviewed Endrew F., it continued its practice of interpreting “some educational benefit” as “merely more than de minimus.”  This meant that a child with disabilities was receiving an adequate education under the Individuals With Disabilities Act (IDEA) if they made even the smallest amount of progress during a school year.  The Supreme Court determined in Endrew F., however, that an “educational program must be appropriately ambitious in light of [a child’s] circumstances,” calling it “markedly more demanding than the ‘merely more than de minimis’” test.  That was great news!

After the Supreme Court’s decision, the case was sent back down to the trial level—to the District Court in Denver, Colorado.  The District Court was charged with deciding whether Endrew, who has autism, was entitled to reimbursement for his private school tuition.  His parents said he had made very little progress at his public school in Douglas County, but made much more progress at a private school his parents placed him in, with the help of their attorney.  His new school used a Behavioral Interventional Plan that was tailored to Endrew’s needs.


Last week, after more than a decade of struggling, Judge Lewis Babcock ruled that the Douglas County School District is responsible for the private school costs for Endrew.  We’re so happy that Endrew and his parents had this victory, and we hope that the Douglas County School District, and school districts across the nation, learn to prioritize the unique needs of our students, so that all students can have access to a challenging, rewarding education that helps them learn and grow.

Read more about the case here, and click here to learn about the long journey Endrew’s parents went through.

The Money Behind Special Education

In 1993, a group of concerned parents founded the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE).  They wanted to reform New York’s school finance system, so they filed a lawsuit challenging that the State underfunded New York City's public schools.  It took quite a few rounds of going to court, but in 2003, the New York State Court of Appeals—the State’s highest court—found that New York’s school funding system violated New York City schoolchildren’s constitutional right to a sound basic education.


Yet the State has still not adequately funded New York schools at the level the Court required.  In the first two years following the Court’s decision, the New York Legislature provided installments totaling $2.3 billion, but aid was cut after the recession, and has yet to recover.  Read the story of the CFE decision here, here, and here.

The Court decided that schools need more money, but they’re not getting any more.  And, of course, special education can take a huge hit when funds are tight.

Year after year, thousands upon thousands of students classified with disabilities do not fully receive the special education services mandated on their IEPs.  And the New York City Department of Education doesn’t even attempt to hide that fact.  Their Annual Report on Special Education for last school year estimates that 41,040 students were only partially receiving their special education services, and that 7,383 students were not receiving any special education services.  And this doesn’t even take into account the many disabled students who have not been classified and provided with IEPs.  That’s over 25% of classified students not receiving the full services mandated on their IEPs!  Getting that percentage down to single digits will undoubtedly require a funding increase.

But next year, the federal government plans to fund the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) at the lowest level since 2001, covering only 14.9% of per pupil expenditures.  When the IDEA was enacted, Congress authorized funding up to 40%, but the federal government has never funded more than 19%.

And as New York State plans its budget for next year, funding for education is still a big question mark.  The Alliance for Quality Education says the Executive Budget proposes a special education cut of $70 million for the coming school year, primarily through a change in the reimbursement formula for summer special education programs.  New York City officials say that the budget means $65 million less for the city’s special education programs, and Mayor de Blasio says the overall education budget falls $200 million short of what city officials projected.

Until our schools are funded at the level they deserve, students with disabilities will miss out on the services they need.  As the state budget is finalized this spring, we hope students with disabilities are kept in mind.

Unique Needs

Welcome to the inaugural blog post of the Law Office of Steven Alizio, PLLC!  We hope you’ll continue to follow us for updates on special education law and strategies to ensure each child’s individual needs are met.


Many may remember the Houston Chronicle breaking the story about the Texas enrollment target in 2016.  In 2004, Texas set a special education enrollment target at 8.5 percent—they didn’t want more than 8.5 percent of Texas students to be enrolled in special education.  The problem?  Way more than 8.5 percent of students needed special education services!  It’s estimated that, under this cap, at least 150,000 children were kept out of special education programs.  To compare, about 19 percent of students in New York City schools receive special education services—and this percentage doesn’t even include the many students with special needs that haven’t been classified.

Although the federal Department of Education did a huge investigation, and the Texas schools are recovering, the underlying problem still looms.  Too often, schools focus on what they have available for children with disabilities, rather than what the children need.

Before special education became common in the United States, many children with disabilities were either barred from receiving an education or were forced to adapt to whatever education was available.  The Individuals with Disabilities in Education Act (IDEA) changed that.  Special education means meeting the needs of the child—not about forcing a child to try to succeed with whatever is available.

The IDEA is about meeting a child’s “unique needs.”  Corresponding federal regulations explain that, “Special education means specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability,” and that “Specially designed instruction means adapting, as appropriate to the needs of an eligible child under this part, the content, methodology, or delivery of instruction…[t]o address the unique needs of the child that result from the child's disability….”

Parents know that it’s hard to fit a child into a box—especially when a child has as many unique and wonderful qualities as our children with disabilities do.  When pursuing a free and appropriate education for children with disabilities, it’s important to remember that children deserve to have their unique needs met—they don’t have to accept whatever’s available, or whatever the state wishes the student needed.