Thursday, January 5, 2012

What is the Definition of Special Education in California?

By Michelle Ball, California Education Attorney for Students since 1995

Thousands of parents have their children in special education, but do not have any idea what "special education" really is.  In fact their special education definitions can vary greatly as no one is out there giving them instruction or direction on the LEGAL definition of special education.   There IS an actual, specific, legal definition, of "special education" outlined in both state and federal law.

Per California Education Code section 56031(a) "Special education," is:

"specially designed instruction, at no cost to the parent, to meet the unique needs of individuals with exceptional needs, including instruction conducted in the classroom, in the home, in hospitals and institutions, and other settings, and instruction in physical education."

The federal definition, outlined in the United States Code, volume 20, section 1401 (29) [20 USC 1401], which is even more brief:, states:

"The term "special education" means specially designed instruction, at no cost to parents, to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability, including -
(A) instruction conducted in the classroom, in the home, in hospitals and institutions, and in other settings; and
(B) instruction in physical education."

California Education Code section 56031(b) also includes in its definition of special education:

a) Speech and language services.
b) Other "related services" [see section 56363 for a full list]
c) Travel training.
d) Vocational education

The federal law does not include these services in the DEFINITION of "special education," as they are simply categorized under "related services."

All of these subjects could fill books as needed, but needless to say, these are the basic definitions of "special education" with which parents should become familiar.   The legal standard may need to be referenced as even districts can be confused about their obligations.   For example, I had a client who was homebound (could not leave to attend school due to disability issues) and the district denied the student was qualified for special education as independent study was available.  Their denial was mistaken as disabled students may receive instructional services in the home via special education.  When the school was educated on just what special education is and who qualifies, the student was promptly qualified and provided with one-on-one instruction from credentialed teachers at home.

Parents must know these legal definitions exist and what they are.  Attempting to argue any other special education "definitions" can result in losses for the student and confusion for all.  If parents utilize proper legal definitions in their advocacy, they should be able to get further in their quest for services.


Michelle Ball
Education Law Attorney
717 K Street, Suite 228
Sacramento, CA 95814
Phone: 916-444-9064
Fax: 916-444-1209
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