Special Needs Resources

At private schools: Some private schools do provide services for special needs students, and we provide info on those schools’ profile pages where they have provided it to us. And, because of legislation passed in 2016, parents of some special needs children can apply for a new state program that allows you to use the state’s public education funding for your child (about $6,000 in most places) to help pay for private services. The catch? You give up your right to a spot in a public school. All the details (and there are a lot) can be found on the state’s Individualized Education Account page.

At public schools: All students in public schools (including charter schools) in Tennessee who qualify for special education services have certain rights by law. While special education law is lengthy and complex, there are three main things guaranteed to all special education students:

  1. A Free, Appropriate Public Education (FAPE), which may comprise of education in regular classes, education in regular classes with the use of related aids and services, or special education and related services in separate classrooms for all or portions of the school day.
  2. An Individualized Education Program (IEP) is a plan created by a team of the child’s parents, educators and others participating in the child’s care or education that defines how a disabled child will receive a free, appropriate public education.
  3. Placement in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE), meaning that a child should be educated to the greatest extent possible with children who are not disabled.

You, as the parent of a child with a disability, must be given the opportunity to participate in meetings with respect to the identification, evaluation, and educational placement of the child, and the provision of FAPE to the child.

More on Special Education

Special education gets much more complicated and technical than we can get into here, but here are some frequently asked questions:

Special education is defined in Federal law as specially designed instruction to meet the unique needs of a child with a disability, provided at no cost to the parents. Federal and state constitutions and laws, including the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), give parents of students with qualifying disabilities the right to participate in the educational path for their children.
Child Find is the Local Education Agency’s (LEA) — aka the school district’s — duty to identify, locate, and evaluate children who need special education and related services. When a child is suspected, by parents or teachers, of having a disability under IDEA, such as speech impairment, emotional disturbance or other health impairment, the school must evaluate the child to determine whether he or she qualifies for special education services.
Response to Instruction and Intervention, or RTI2, is a teaching system that uses data to identify students’ specific needs and match those needs with appropriate instructional strategies. If a child is suspected of having a specific learning disability (SLD), the Tennessee Board of Education requires all districts and schools to use RTI2 to determine eligibility of those students to receive Special Education services. Before making a special education referral for a student suspected of having an SLD, schools are required to provide tiered interventions, and provide data showing that the interventions were not successful in closing any academic gaps of the student. A student may be referred for Special Education during Tier III – the most intense intervention — but eligibility for Special Education will not be determined until interventions have been given time to show academic progress or a lack thereof.  If at any point in the RTI2 process it is suspected that a child is a child with a disability, a special education referral should be made.  Here’s more about the RTI2 process. Here’s an article about how RTI2 is playing out in Tennessee.
An IEP (individualized education program) must be developed for each child eligible for special education services and must contain specific explanations, levels, goals, and other items required by law. For a much more detailed description, see this IEP article at Understood.org.

When enrolling in or transferring to a different public school, including a public charter school, the law requires the following:

  • If the amount or type of services to be provided will change from what was provided at the prior school, an IEP team meeting is required.  Changes must be based on data.
  • The services outlined in the current IEP must be provided until the IEP changes following a meeting.
Though charter schools may not presently have the infrastructure or personnel to meet the needs of a child with a disability identified in the child’s IEP, charter schools are responsible for ensuring their students receive special education and related services in the least restrictive environment. Charter schools may not refuse to enroll students because of their eligibility for special education services. The publication Special Education in Tennessee Charter Schools provides more information.

Need outside help dealing with special education-related issues?
Check out our Advocacy Resources page.


Special thanks to Kate McDonald of Disability Rights Tennessee for help with this page.