Since 1975 children with disabilities have been entitled to a free and appropriate education at public expense- FAPE. This guarantee came about as part of the Education of All Handicapped Children Act that was signed into law by President Ford.
As with all things, the devil is in the details. Over the years there have been huge disagreements between families and school systems regarding what equals appropriate. The full inclusion movement that advocates that all children, regardless of disability, should be educated in the general curriculum has further complicated the issue.
Let's start with "free". There are few issues now if a family wants their child educated in the public schools. Certainly that will be free. Although your taxes and those of others are funding it. The law, however, also provides that if the public schools cannot provide an appropriate education in the public system, then the public schools need to purchase an appropriate program from an approved private provider that can offer the appropriate program. That is where the fight frequently occurs. Public schools are happy to let families send their child to school someplace else, just not at their expense.
The stickler is most often the word "appropriate". School systems will argue that the child must be educated with non-disabled peers. But that is not what the law says. The law says that a child with a disability must be educated with non-disabled peers "to the maximum extent that it is appropriate". There is that stickler word again- appropriate. What kinds of things make a program not appropriate for a child. What if a child is bullied and teased by his/her age mates? Does the extent of that bullying/teasing render the program inappropriate for that child? What if a child reads at several grade levels below that of the rest of the kids in the class-what happens then? Can the teacher still teach to that child? Suppose a child cannot tolerate being the dummy of the class any longer and begins to act out with bad behaviors. Everyone should know by now that a child would rather be bad than dumb. Being bad holds a certain cache and the worse your behavior is the more impressed your well behaved classmates are with your bravery. Is your class appropriate if all the other kids have totally different learning issues from yours? Suppose the schools try to fix that by giving your child a dedicated assistant. That service certainly makes sure your child gets enough adult attention. Of course, the assistant also creates a barrier between your child and the other kids so your chances of a friendship have just gone down another notch.
What can a family do? First of all attend all the meetings the school calls. Bring a friend if both parents are not available. Make sure when you attend this meeting you dress like an adult so that you will not be patronized. If you are patronized take a stand. I will treat you with respect if you do the same. If you are addressed by your first name, address staff by their first names. Take notes at the meeting. Frequently stop the meeting to make sure the quotations you are writing down are correct. This technique makes the other people edgy and helps even the odds against you. Make your notes as neat as possible because at the end of the meeting you are going to ask people to sign that your notes are a substantial representation of what was said at the meeting.
When you present your case at the meeting avoid wishy washy words like "I believe" and "I think". Present facts as objectively as possible and have dates when events occurred, notation of phone calls or emails that you sent. Don't let the group rattle you. And finally ask the question: If this were your daughter would you choose this education that you are proposing? That will make some people wiggle. In the end, your response should be- "well neither will I" or " you may be willing to shortchange your child's education but I am not. Then request a meeting with the next person up the authority pole.
Remember, you are not asking for anything that is not guaranteed to your child in both federal and state law. And you child's future may be riding on whose definition of appropriate carries the day.