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What does ‘FAPE’ really mean?

By Ellen Chambers

Eligible students with disabilities are entitled to a “free appropriate public education,” often referred to as a FAPE. FAPE is a standard set by the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA). When we ask whether or not a student with special needs is receiving all the services to which they are legally entitled, we ask, “is the student receiving a FAPE?”

IDEA defines FAPE at 20 U.S.C Section 602(9) as follows: “the term ‘free appropriate public education’ means special education and related services that (a) have been provided at public expense, under public supervision and direction, and without charge; (b) meet the standards of the State educational agency; (c) include an appropriate preschool, elementary school, or secondary school education; and (d) are provided in conformity with the individualized education program required under section 614(d).”

Rarely is there disagreement about what is meant by the words ‘free,’ ‘public,’ and ‘education.’ However, as many parents have discovered, interpretation of the word ‘appropriate’ can differ widely among individuals.

So what does a FAPE really mean in the context of special education programming? When the language of the law itself is vague about a concept, such as it is with FAPE, we must turn to administrative and judicial decisions, and be guided by how hearing officers and judges have interpreted the meaning of FAPE. Of great use to Massachusetts parents is a hearing decision issued on August 17, 2001 by Hearing Officer William Crane of the Massachusetts Bureau of Special Education Appeals. The case, BSEA # 01-1222, involved the Gill-Montague Regional School District, and contained the following language:

“The US Supreme Court has stated that the federal standard [FAPE] ‘contemplates personalized instruction with sufficient support services to permit the child to benefit educationally.’ Lower federal courts have further refined their understanding of the requisite benefit to the special needs child, often stating that the benefit must be meaningful or more than minimal. In addition, federal courts, as well as special education law and regulations, have focused on the importance of addressing the ‘unique’ individual nature of the particular child’s needs for special education and related services.”

In another case, Burlington v. Department of Education, 736 F.2d 773, 788 (1984), the First Circuit Court of Appeals (which covers Massachusetts and is the last stop before the U.S. Supreme Court) stated that, concerning FAPE:

“[the] objective is ‘demonstrable improvements in the educational and personal skills identified as special needs,’ educational instruction must be based on the ‘unique needs of the disabled child’ with sufficient support services so that the child will benefit from that instruction.”


More than a FAPE

FAPE describes a minimum standard for the provision of special education below which states may not go. All states must adhere to the FAPE standard.

What is often overlooked by schools is the fact that states are free to set their own standards for the education of students with special needs which may meet or exceed the federal FAPE standard. Massachusetts has adopted higher special education standards that exceed FAPE, and districts are absolutely obligated to meet these standards.

Massachusetts special education regulations contain an “effective progress” standard which gives eligible students with disabilities the right to make progress at a rate commensurate with their unique potential, not only academically, but socially and emotionally, as well.1. More generally, the Massachusetts education reform statute, which applies to all students and schools, sets forth the “paramount goal of the commonwealth to provide a public education system of sufficient quality to extend to all children the opportunity to reach their full potential.”2

So, if a school district should tell you “we only have to provide a FAPE” remind them that there are other, higher standards that they must also meet when providing education for Massachusetts students with special needs.


1 603 CMR 28.02(17) Progress effectively in the general education program shall mean to make documented growth in the acquisition of knowledge and skills, including social/emotional development, within the general education program, with or without accommodations, according to chronological age and developmental expectations, the individual educational potential of the student, and the learning standards set forth in the Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks and the curriculum of the district.”

2 MGL c. 69 , s. 1.