Does Free Appropriate Public Education Really Exist?

By: Troy Brown

People sometimes overlook the luxury of having free public education for children from elementary school through high school. One group of individuals, who for years didn’t exactly have this luxury, does not overlook it, however. Parents of children with disabilities have long scoffed at the notion of “free” education due to the outrageous extra costs that go into ensuring their children are able to receive a decent education.

Children with disabilities often require specialized programs and services to learn effectively. Depending on the child’s disability, these programs and services can range anywhere from having a tutor, to needing specialized classes, to having a sign language interpreter in class. It is not hard to imagine that these services and programs are not cheap. Prior to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004 (IDEA/2004), and even after its implementation to an extent, public schools have not been able to afford to provide these services free of charge. Parents were forced with the dilemma of choosing to pay for these services, move their children to expensive private schools, or have their children settle for a subpar education.

The goal of IDEA/2004 is to ensure that every child, disabled or not, has a right to a “free appropriate public education.” The IDEA/2004 has helped struggling parents in numerous ways. The Act provides federal financial assistance to state and local education administrations to help educate disabled children. The Act also requires public schools to provide “special education and related services” to those students who fit into one of thirteen categories of disability as listed in the Act.

Sometimes public schools are not fully capable of providing the necessary programs and services, so the disabled student is forced to go to an expensive private school. This is where the Act gets a little controversial. Students who get moved to a private school by the school district itself are still able to receive a “free appropriate public education,” even though they are in a private school, through providing financial assistance to the family in the form of reimbursement.

However, for those parents who disagree with what the school believes is sufficient services for the child, may or not be able to get a “free appropriate public education.” Where the parents can prove that the public school’s programs and services are insufficient for effective education of their child, the child is eligible for reimbursement for the private school expenses. The problem is the parents first have to go through court proceedings, where the courts are highly deferential to the schools because they are believed to be the experts in this field. This makes it hard for certain children to get the proper financial assistance which leads to the same dilemma parents were dealing with prior to the Act.

While the IDEA/2004 has provided a significant improvement towards disabled children having the same level of education as nondisabled children by providing financial assistance to schools and children, there is still room for improvement. Educating children with disabilities can sometimes be a pricey task. However they should be able to receive a truly free appropriate public education, just as any other student can. With the high value the United States places on education, we should take appropriate measures to ensure this happens.


Lewis M. Wasserman, Reimbursement to Parents of Tuition and Other Costs Under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act of 2004, 21 Journal of Civil Rights and Economic Development 171 (2006).

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