IDEA - Parent And Student Participation In Decision Making

Supplemental Notes for Special Education 205

Introduction to Serving Students with Special Needs
(Instructor: Thomas E. Grayson)

Parent And Student Participation In Decision Making Executive



The IDEA strongly encourages the participation of and communication among all parties who have a vested interest in enhancing the education of students with disabilities. The participation of parents and students with disabilities in special education decision making is certainly a vital aspect of the legislation.

Parents have always been important players in the special education process, and their involvement is crucial to successful results for students. Areas where they have been involved in the past, and will continue to be involved, include (but are not limited to) the following:

-- Public agencies must notify parents when they propose or refuse to initiate or change the identification, evaluation, or educational placement of the child, or the provision of FAPE to the child;

IDEA 97 further expands the role of parents in decision making, as outlined in "Areas of Change" below.

Students with disabilities, in contrast, have traditionally been the recipients of services through the decision making of others. Until recently, they have played an almost passive role in determining their IEP development. In the 1990 amendments to the law, however, Congress strengthened the role that students are expected and entitled to play in planning and implementing their own education. This was seen primarily in the transition services requirements that were added to the law as part of the 1990 amendments and that remain in effect today:

Areas of Change

IDEA 97 has maintained the requirements for parental and student involvement in decision making, as listed above, and has added the following:

For Parents:

For Students:

Parent And Student Participation In Decision Making


The Education for All Handicapped Children Act (P.L. 94-142) of 1975 was intended to increase educational opportunities for all students with disabilities. The law has opened doors to many children who were previously not permitted to, or who were unable to, participate fully in publicly funded education programs. Across the years since the law's original enactment, and throughout the many amendments to the law, one of the central tenets of this legislation has been the involvement and shared decision-making rights of parents of children with disabilities. Student involvement and responsibility also have been increased over the years.

Parents have always been important players in the special education process, and their involvement is vital to successful results for students. Parents have intimate knowledge of their child with disabilities; they live with and observe their son or daughter on a daily basis and can contribute invaluable information about their child's routine, development, history, strength, weaknesses, and so on. Parents' special insights are essential to service providers who have responsibility for delivering educational services to children with disabilities.

Accordingly, the law expects and requires that public agencies will involve parents in steps along the way in a child's education. The IDEA 97 maintains this requirement and expands upon it by adding several key steps in which parents must now be involved.

This section looks at what the law requires in terms of parent and student participation in the special education process.

Parent Involvement, Prior To Idea 97

Prior to looking at what the new law has added in terms of parent involvement and shared decision-making responsibilities, a summary will be presented of the ways in which parents have been involved in the past (and will continue to be involved). Resource 9-1 presents each of the points below and cross-references the point to the section in the regulations covering that parental right. These rights are also presented, in summary form, in Handout 9-1.

Together, these requirements add up to a formidable acknowledgment of parents' right to be involved in the educational planning for and service delivery to their child.

Parent Involvement Under Idea 97

IDEA 97 seeks to improve student performance and ensure their quality education by requiring and supporting a communicative partnership of all parties involved in the student's education. The new legislation strengthens the roles of parents, students, and educational service providers to work as a team in the identification and evaluation of individual children with disabilities, and in the development, implementation, and revision of educational programming for these children.

Each of the parent rights outlined above is maintained under IDEA 97, with several new rights and responsibilities being added. Each "old" and new right will be discussed below.

Definition of "Parent"

In the special education process, there is a need for much decision making by the parent. When the public agency cannot discover the whereabouts of the parent or the child is a ward of the State, it is necessary to assign an individual to act as a surrogate for the parents. IDEA 97 defines the term "parent" to include a legal guardian and a surrogate parent but does not allow an individual who is an employee of the SEA, the LEA, or any other agency that is involved in the education and care of the child to act as a surrogate parent.

The definition of "parent" as it appears in the statute is:

Section 602

"(19) Parent.-- The term ëparent'-- "(A) includes a legal guardian; and "(B) except as used in sections 615(b)(2) and 639(a)(5), includes an individual assigned under either of those sections to be a surrogate parent."

Section 615(b)(2)

"(b) Types of Procedures.-- The procedures required by this section shall include-- ...(2) procedures to protect the rights of the child whenever the parents of the child are not known, the agency cannot, after reasonable efforts, locate the parents, or the child is a ward of the State, including the assignment of an individual (who shall not be an employee of the State educational agency, the local educational agency, or any other agency that is involved in the education or care of the child) to act as a surrogate for the parents..."

Section 639(a)(5)

"(5) Procedures to protect the rights of the infant or toddler whenever the parents of the infant or toddler are not known or cannot be found or the infant or toddler is a ward of the State, including the assignment of an individual (who shall not be an employee of the State lead agency, or other State agency, and who shall not be any person, or any employee of a person, providing early intervention services to the infant or toddler or any family member of the infant or toddler) to act as a surrogate for the parents."

Parents' Participation in Their Child's Education

The IDEA 97 opens with a list of "Findings" that have prompted Congress to design the legislation as it has. Among these findings are that "over 20 years of research and experience [have] demonstrated that the education of children with disabilities can be made more effective by ...strengthening the roles of parents and ensuring that families of such children have meaningful opportunities to participate in the education of their children at school and at home" [Section 601(c)(5)(B)]. Accordingly, IDEA 97 continues to emphasize the importance of parents being actively involved in the individual educational process of their children and, indeed, strengthens their role.

The new law maintains the previous requirements for parent involvement that were listed at the beginning of this section (and in the "At a Glance" section). Resource 9-2 presents each of these requirements and cross-references it to the section in the new law where that parental right is maintained.

The IDEA 97 also adds several new requirements in terms of parental involvement in their child's education. These new requirements, presented in Resource 9-3 and cross-referenced to the text in the law itself, are:

This list of new rights and responsibilities (summarized in Handout 9-1) shows that the involvement of parents in the education of their child has increased substantially. Let's take a brief look at each of these new areas of parental involvement.

Parents' input must now be solicited during the evaluation process. Previously, this was not a requirement of law, although many schools routinely did include parents in the process of gathering information about the child in order to determine his or her eligibility for special education and related services. IDEA 97 expressly mentions the parents as a source of information during the evaluation process (see Resource 9-3 for the law's verbatim language). Furthermore, as members of their child's IEP Team, they are involved in the review of existing evaluation data during the initial evaluation and any reevaluation of their child. Parents can contribute a good deal of useful information about their child's strengths and educational needs, and schools can gain special insight into the child from the parents.

The eligibility determination is a new area of involvement for parents as well. Previously, parents were not always involved in this process; most merely received notice of their child's eligibility (or ineligibility) for services. IDEA 97 now requires that a parent be included in the eligibility discussion and decision (see Resource 9-3 for verbatim text from the law). As part of the evaluation process, a copy of the evaluation report and the documentation of the child's eligibility must also be given to parents. This sharing of information should help in the development of the parent-school partnership and the collaborative development of the individual planning process.

Similarly, involvement in placement decisions is an exciting new right for parents (see Resource 9-3 for the verbatim language of the law). Under prior legislation, the parents were often excluded from placement decisions. Now, parents are to be included in the group that makes the decision with respect to a child's educational placement.

Parent consent is now required before the public agency may conduct a reevaluation of the child. Under previous amendments to the law, parental consent was only required for the initial evaluation of the child. Now, under IDEA 97, the same parental consent is required for any reevaluation. The law does state that, if the LEA has taken reasonable measures to obtain parents' consent and the parents have failed to respond, the school may proceed without the consent. (Resource 9-3 presents the precise language of IDEA 97.)

Parents' right to participate in meetings related to their child's education has been strengthened considerably by the direct language of the IDEA 97. As part of the law's procedural safeguards, parents must have the opportunity to participate in meetings regarding the identification, evaluation, and educational placement of the child, and the provision of FAPE to their child.

Another area in which parental involvement has been strengthened is their right to receive regular reports from the public agency regarding their child's progress. (This aspect of the law is discussed in the module on IEPs.) IDEA 97 requires that parents of children with disabilities be notified of their child's progress at least as often as parents are notified of their nondisabled children's progress. It has been suggested that parents receive these student progress reports at the same intervals as the general education population receives report cards. Such reports would identify whether or not the child is making sufficient progress toward his or her annual goals. Unsatisfactory reports would indicate the need for the IEP Team to meet again and make revisions to the student's IEP. [Section 614(d)(4)(A)(ii)(I) of IDEA 97 requires that the IEP be revised to address "any lack of expected progress toward the annual goals and in the general curriculum, as appropriate."] The ability of the parents to track problems in their child's progress more frequently and closely and to do something about revising the IEP accordingly has much potential for improving student performance and outcomes. (See Resource 9-3 for the verbatim text of IDEA 97 with respect to both report cards and revising the IEP.)

Parents, as active members in the education of their child with disabilities, also need to be responsible in keeping the service providers informed of their ideas, concerns, and intended actions. Accordingly, the IDEA 97 adds the requirement that parents provide notice to the educational agency of actions they intend to take. Specifically:

In the law, the issue of notifying the public agency prior to removing the child from public school and unilaterally placing the child in private school comes up as part of the larger issue of reimbursement for private school placement. In the past, many parents who were dissatisfied with the education offered their child by the public agency simply removed the child from the public school and placed him or her in a private school. Then a conflict would arise over whether the public agency would be required to pay for the private school placement. The deciding factor in these conflicts was usually whether the public agency had, indeed, been making FAPE available to the child. If so, then parents' request for reimbursement of costs was typically denied. If, however, the public agency had failed to offer FAPE in a timely manner to the child, then parents could usually secure reimbursement for the cost of placing their child in a private school.

The IDEA 97 maintains previous policy that an LEA would not be required to pay for the costs of a private school placement if it had made FAPE available to the child and the parents elected to place the child in the private school or facility. The new law clarifies that reimbursement may be required if the public agency did not make FAPE available. However, the new law adds that reimbursement may be reduced or denied if parents failed to notify the public agency that they were rejecting the placement offered by the agency, including stating their concerns and their intent to enroll their child in a private school at public expense. This is a new and important parental responsibility.

Another important parental responsibility, is the requirement that parents notify the SEA, the State agency, or the LEA, as appropriate, of their intention to file a complaint (i.e., request a due process hearing). This notice, provided by either the parents or their attorney, would remain confidential and would be provided to the SEA or LEA. It would include specific information (see verbatim language of IDEA 97, in Resource 9-3), such as identifying the name, address, and school of the child, a description of the problem, facts relating to the problem, and a proposed resolution of the problem, to the extent known and available to parents at the time.

This new requirement places responsibility on the parents for expressing their concerns to the public agency prior to requesting a due process hearing. It allows the public agency to be informed and, presumably, to take actions that may resolve the problem without the formality, expense, and frustration of a due process hearing.

In summary, parents are clearly to be considered partners in the undertaking of providing special education and related services to their child. They need to be involved in every step along the way, from identification of their child as potentially having a disability, through the evaluation and eligibility process, through planning the IEP and determining their child's placement, and in participating in any meetings necessary to address problems or concerns with respect to their child's education. In their turn, they must be responsive to the public agency as their partner in decision making, including notifying the public agency about their concerns and intentions. All of these are both formidable rights and responsibilities that the law requires of, and for, parents.

Parent Participation in Policy-making

Beyond being involved in their own child's education, parents are encouraged in many other ways by the legislation to work as partners with educators and policy-makers. With their specialized knowledge regarding children with disabilities, parents can provide advice and direction at the national, state, and local levels in special education issues. The following discussion highlights some of the revisions brought about by IDEA 97.

Parent participation at the national level. The Department of Education funds a great deal of research and other activities under Part D of the IDEA. Under the law, the Secretary of the Department of Education must develop and implement a comprehensive plan for the "coordinated research, personnel preparation, technical assistance, support, and dissemination of information" to be conducted under IDEA. The Federal Government then may issue requests for proposals (RFPs) to which outside entities such as universities, nonprofit organizations, SEAs and LEAs, and other agencies may respond by submitting proposals to conduct research, prepare personnel, provide technical assistance or support, disseminate information, and so on. These proposals must then be reviewed, and grants, contracts, or cooperative agreements are then awarded to the agencies or organizations with the best proposals.

IDEA 97 requires that the Department of Education involve parents of children with disabilities in a variety of ways in its planning, implementation, and review activities. The input of parents, as individuals who are well informed about disability issues and the needs of children with disabilities in particular, is valuable to the Department of Education as it plans, implements, and reviews any number of its activities. Resource 9-4 outlines, with verbatim quotes from IDEA 97, the chief areas in which parents of children with disabilities must be given the opportunity to provide the Department with their valuable insights into disability issues. These include:

Thus, in preparing applications for grants, contracts, or cooperative agreements, and in reviewing the same, the Secretary of the Department of Education must assure that parents of children with disabilities are involved. Similarly, parent representatives are to be invited to sit on panels and committees to provide input and direction to the Department of Education for funding of general and specific research areas, personnel preparation needs of service providers, and needed technical assistance for children with disabilities and their families.

Parent participation at the state level. Parents of children with disabilities are to be involved in policy-making at the state level as well, in two specific ways:

Each state has a State Advisory Panel "for the purpose of providing policy guidance with respect to special education and related services for children with disabilities in the State." Since parents know their children and their needs the best, parents are essential to the panel in providing input to the State. IDEA 97 states that "the majority of the members of the panel shall be individuals with disabilities or parents of children with disabilities." Resource 9-5 provides verbatim text from IDEA 97 regarding parent participation on the State Advisory Panel.

Revisions in IDEA 97 encourage reform for educational excellence. The reforms are to be developed at the local and state levels. IDEA 97 encourages States to apply for grant monies to develop and implement a plan for local educational improvement for students with special needs. This will be in the form of a State Program Improvement Grant. The purpose of the state program improvement grant is to "...assist State educational agencies, and their partners... in reforming and improving their systems for providing educational, early intervention and transitional services, including their systems for professional development, technical assistance and dissemination of knowledge about best practice, to improve results for children with disabilities" [Section 651 (b)]. Parents of children with disabilities, as well as parents of nondisabled children, are to be partners in this process. Parents provide advice and guidance in identifying and developing improvement strategies for systemic change. These improvement changes are to address the needs of students with disabilities, compliance issues, dissemination of results of local capacity building projects, and evaluation of strategies implemented to improve the educational process for all children, especially those with disabilities.

Parent participation at the local level. Parents of children with disabilities are to be involved in decision making at the local level as well-- specifically, in terms of the school-based improvement plans that LEAs can submit. An LEA may use funds provided through IDEA "to permit a public school within the jurisdiction of the local educational agency to design, implement, and evaluate a school-based improvement plan... designed to improve educational and transitional results for all children with that public school" [Section 613(g)]. Such a school-based improvement plan is to be designed, evaluated, and (as appropriate) implemented by a school-based standing panel. Membership of this panel must reflect the diversity of the community in which the public school is located and must include parents of children with disabilities who attend the public school. Beyond participation in the standing panel, parents must also be involved "in the design, evaluation, and, where appropriate, implementation of school-based improvement plans" [Section 613(g)(6)(A)].

Students As Partners In Their Education

If students are to develop into independent, productive adults, and become increasingly responsible for their behaviors and accomplishments, they need to acquire the skills that are of value in the world of adulthood. The law acknowledges this and contains provisions meant to encourage student involvement and shared decision making. Specifically, the new legislation introduces two new requirements with respect to students themselves:

Transition Planning

Over the years since the original enactment of this legislation as Public Law 94-142, the expectation for student involvement in educational programming has grown. Students could be invited, when appropriate, to the IEP meeting, but until recently the reality was that most students weren't invited and, if they were, they sat quietly, listening to what was said about them, seldom venturing to have a "say-so" in the planning being done. This isolated approach changed significantly with the 1990 amendments to IDEA, which unveiled new requirements regarding transition services and students' involvement in planning them.

Transition services are intended to prepare students to make the transition from the world of school to the world of adulthood. In planning what type of transition services a student needs to prepare for adulthood, the IEP Team considers areas such as postsecondary education or vocational training, adult services agencies and community agencies, employment, independent living, and community participation. The transition services themselves are a "coordinated set of activities" that are based on the student's needs and that take into account his or her preferences and interests. They can include instruction, community experiences, the development of employment and other post-school adult living objectives, and (if appropriate) the acquisition of daily living skills and functional vocational assessment.

Under the 1990 IDEA, transition services have been a requirement for students who are 16 years or older, or younger, if deemed appropriate by the IEP Team. The services are planned at the IEP meeting to which students must be invited. Thus, the 1990 legislation provided students with an enormous new opportunity to be involved in planning their own education, to look into the future, to voice their preferences and concerns and desires, to be heard, to share in making decisions that so directly affect them.

Now, under IDEA 97, this involvement has been expanded. In addition to transition services beginning at age 16, a statement of transition service needs is required at age 14. At this time, and updated annually thereafter, the IEP Team looks at the child's courses of study (such as advanced placement courses or vocational education programs) and determines whether or not those courses of study are leading the student to where the student needs to be upon graduation. What other courses might be indicated, given the student's goals for life after secondary school? Beginning to plan at age 14, with an eye to necessary course-work, is expected to help students plan and prepare educationally. Then, at age 16, or younger if appropriate, transition services are delivered in a wide range of areas.

According to the Committee on Labor and Human Resources (1997), in its Report [to accompany S. 717], the purpose of stating transition service needs at age 14:

" to focus attention on how the child's educational program can be planned to help the child make a successful transition to his or her goals for life after secondary school. This provision is designed to augment, and not replace, the separate transition services requirement, under which children with disabilities beginning no later than age sixteen receive transition services including instruction, community experiences, the development of employment and other post-school objectives and, when appropriate, independent living skills and functional vocational evaluation." (p. 22)

Age of Majority

IDEA 97 has outlined procedures for the transfer of parental rights to the student when he or she reaches the age of majority under State law. (Resource 9-8 presents the text of the IDEA 97 as it relates to age of majority. Handout 9-3 presents a summary "age of majority" requirements. ) Both the parents and the student must be notified of any transfer of rights that will take place. Students are to receive the notification at least one year before they reach the age of majority, and a statement must be included in the IEP that the student has been informed of his or her rights, if any, that will transfer to the child on reaching the age of majority. (The text of IDEA 97 in this regard is presented in Resource 9-7.) After the student attains the age of majority, if rights transfer, the school must provide any notice required by the law (e.g., procedural safeguards notice, notice regarding an upcoming IEP meeting) to both the student and the parents. In States where rights transfer, all other rights accorded to the parents transfer to the student. (If the student is determined incompetent under state law, then the rights remain with the parents.)

Many students, however, may not have the ability to provide informed consent with respect to their educational program, although they have not been determined under State law to be incompetent. To protect the interests of these children, IDEA 97 provides that each State that transfers rights needs to establish procedures for appointing the parents (or another appropriate individual, if the parents are not available) to represent the student's educational interests.

This transfer of rights is obviously an enormous step forward toward empowering students as adults and encouraging them to inform themselves about and become deeply involved in their education and particularly in planning for their future. Educators will need to provide additional training and opportunities for the student to understand the impact of this responsibility.


Throughout the history of this legislation-- Public Law 94-142 to Public Law 102-119, and now with Public Law 105-17-- parents have played a central role in planning their child's education. From the beginning, the law has given parents rights as their child's guardian and advocate and protected those rights through a series of detailed procedural safeguards. In 1990, with Public Law 101-476, student rights and involvement were significantly expanded with the addition of transition services and students' participation in planning those services. The IDEA 97 clearly supports and maintains the concepts of parent and student participation previously a part of the law, and expands upon them by broadening the involvement of both parents and students in decision making.

Last Modified: Fri Mar 19 20:39:29 US/Central 1999