Defining a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE)

Our understanding of a Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) comes partly from statute and partly from case law. It brings parents both hope for what schools can provide for a child, and disappointment at the relatively low bar for education.


A series of federal statutes was passed to give children with disabilities access to education. Historically, only one in five children with disabilities1 were given an opportunity for education, yet even these children were not truly benefitting from the education. First, Congress passed the Education of the Handicapped Act (ACT) of 1975, then later the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), which was reauthorized in 2004 as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEIA) (which most of us still call IDEA).

These Acts allocated money to the states from the federal government in order to ensure that special needs children were receiving FAPE. The Act mandates that the states ensure that their programs allow special needs students an educational experience similar to peers without disabilities. This is done through the IEP, which outlines the child’s educational goals and needs, with parental involvement. 

How broad were the educational requirements of the statute? Case law defined this. In the landmark case of Board of Education of the Hudson Central School District v. Rowley, 458 U.S. 176 (1982), the U.S. Supreme Court defined what FAPE is for a special needs child. 

Rowley involved a little girl who was deaf. Her parents fought the denial of an accommodation for a sign language interpreter all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Despite her educational advancements with the IEP she currently had in place, she did not fully comprehend what was occurring in the classroom when compared to her general education classmates. Although the lower court found that the denial of an interpreter violated the little girl’s FAPE, the Supreme Court held that all that was needed was “that the education to which access is provided be sufficient to confer some educational benefit upon the handicapped child.” 458 U.S. at 200. This was a great disappointment to the little girl’s family, and to many other families ever since.

Although Rowley did say that the Act defined FAPE, it concurred with Congress by stating that the term “free appropriate public education” means special education and related services which: 

(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, or secondary school education in the State involved; and

(D) are provided in conformity with the individualized education program required under section 1414(a)(5) of this title. 

The combination of IDEA and case law gives parents and students some rights, but not as many as they would like. When parents are talking to the schools, they need to frame what they are asking for in terms of what the courts have said is required.


Back to School on Civil Rights: Advancing the Federal Commitment to Leave No Child Behind, National Council on Disability, January 25, 2000.

Because of the generality of the information on this site, it may not apply to a given place, time, or set of facts. It is not intended to be legal advice, and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations